This is Tara Fitzmartin’s blog post regarding the November Monthly Student Opinions theme “Korean Film“. She is a senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Political Science and International Affairs, concentrating in Comparative Political, Economic, and Social Systems.
The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s).
Peppermint Candy, directed by Lee Chang-dong and starring Sol Kyung-gu as Young-ho, was released in 1999, but tells the story of the decades before its release. The film is a painful, gut-wrenching experience, its main character first pitiable and then detestable; it flips traditional depictions of historical narratives on their head. The film’s unconventional rewinding of history through a series of vignettes unfolds the story of failed businessman Young-ho, starting with his suicide. The skillful unraveling of the true nature of his tragedy is the triumph of the film, with the unsuspecting audience at first wary, then disgusted, by Young-ho and finally, shocked by his simple origins as a gentle laborer. Up until the last vignette of the film, Young-ho is thoroughly detestable: abusive of his wife, hypocritical, and a former torturer for the police. Any pity the audience may have felt for Young-ho from his suicide is lost as the decades that led up to his death are revealed. However, just when the audience has settled into their abhorrence of Young-ho, there is the vignette, 19 years before his death, entitled “1980 May, Visiting Camp”.
Anyone familiar with South Korean history instantly recognizes the significance of May 1980 – the date of the infamous Gwangju Uprising, which came to define the nation’s democracy movement. However, unlike most depictions of popular uprisings in cinema, the audience finds itself viewing the side of the oppressor: the military. But this is not the military as seen in other films like May 18, but a man stumbling over his own feet, mourning the loss of gifts from his sweetheart, and when it comes to it, incapable of executing his orders. Upon entering Gwangju, Young-ho is shot in the foot and left by his compatriots when he is approached by a young woman, clearly a participant in the uprising. She begs Young-ho to let her go unharmed, and he acquiesces. This surprising vision into Young-ho’s capability for mercy becomes rapidly warped as his fellow soldiers reenter the scene, causing him to frantically scare the woman away with warning shots. When the second shot he fires accidentally kills her, Young-ho reacts with unrestrained grief and horror, wailing grotesquely in a mirror image of his frightful appearance before his suicide. This scene, the act of killing, becomes the crux of the film, completely changing the audience’s understanding of Young-ho’s life. It is this scene that exemplifies Peppermint Candy to be a master class in story telling, and completely altered the audience’s emotions towards the film and its characters.
Young-ho’s experience in Gwangju reveals that Peppermint Candy is a story of trauma, of how Young-ho’s accidental murder of the young woman results in the destruction of his innocence and a profound sense of being emasculated. The audience sees his true innocence at the very end of the film, in the form of his passion for photography, flowers, and his first love. Tracing these symbols back, the audience realizes that after Gwangju, and in the first half of the film, Young-ho consistently rejects these symbols of his innocence, refusing to embrace what he lost in Gwangju. It is a common belief of those who experience traumatic events that they cannot return to the life or sense of self that they once had – which is portrayed in Young-ho’s desperate cry at the beginning of the film that he wants “to go back”, but knowing that he cannot, his only choice appears to be suicide. As for his sense of masculinity, according to society Young-ho failed to fulfill his masculine duty in Gwangju: he failed to fulfill his duty as a solider and failed to protect a defenseless woman. In order to cope with his damaged masculinity, in a society that deeply values masculinity, he violently asserts his dominance over those around him: sexually harassing the woman who would later be his wife, later physically abusing her, and torturing activists for a profession.
Scholars have argued that Young-ho could be considered as South Korea’s angel of history, referencing the philosophical concept of the spirit of history as fixated on the past but pushed into the future by the storm of progress. Young-ho is forever trapped in the past, reliving his trauma and eternally feeling the need to compensate for the loss he experienced: he is unable to progress because he is incapable of reconciling with his past trauma. From former President Kim Young-sam’s commutation of Chun Doo-hwan’s life sentence to the debate over “The March of the Beloved”, South Korea has struggled to reconcile with its autocratic past. The collective trauma of a country is often credited solely to the experiences of victims – but in a world where the line between victim and perpetrator blurs, it is simplification of society to ignore how perpetrators are created. This film explores the concept of ‘an explanation, not an excuse’, that in order to understand the ‘villains’ of a story, their villainy cannot be accepted as inherent, but must be explored in order to prevent the rise of others like them. The idea of collective trauma encompassing all those affected is clear when Peppermint Candy is paired with Human Acts by Han Kang, a novel that follows the lives of several participants of the Gwangju Uprising. In her novel, it is recognized that after the uprising, many activists, who were tortured by men like Young-ho, committed suicide after struggling for years with the trauma they endured – overwhelmed just as Young-ho was.
However, Young-ho’s existence as a symbol of South Korea’s collective trauma does not mean that the country will suffer the same fate. The success of the 2016-17 protest movement to impeach Park Geun-hye and the election of Moon Jae-in, with his subsequent decision to revive “The March of the Beloved” and the investigation into the Gwangju Uprising, show that the storm of progress continues to push South Korea forward.