Dir: Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea 1999. 125 mins.
Prod co: East Film. Int'l sales: Cineclick (+82 2 577 6694). Prod: Myung Kaynam. Scr: Lee Chang-Dong. DoP: Kim Hyung-Gu. Prod des: Park Il-Hyun. Ed: Kim Hyun. Music: Lee Jae-Jin. Main cast: Sol Kyung-Gu, Moon So-Ri, Kim Yeo-Jin.
South Korean cinema is in fine form, if its recent Cannes presence is anything to go by. Of the three South Korean films at the festival, the Directors' Fortnight selection, Peppermint Candy, was the most obviously commercial - something confirmed by a long run back home, where the film opened in December.
An overlong but oddly magnetic melodrama, Peppermint Candy excels in its main aim: using scenes from a life to build a convincing portrait of a complex, ordinary, not particularly likeable man. The scenes run backwards in time from the tragic end - an unusual device that requires quite a lot of patience from the audience at first.
Given the film's structure, it's no big deal to give the beginning/end away: a workers' reunion picnic by the banks of a river is ruined when one of the colleagues - the tired and emotional Yongho - throws himself under a train.
From here on in, the film traces the life that has led to this gesture. Yongho visits the teenage sweetheart he spurned on her deathbed; next, we see him returning to the shack he has lived in since he lost his job, where the husband of the same woman tells him that she is dying and would like to see him. It sounds like one long spoiler, but the dramatic suspense works backwards: knowing what happened next, we want to know how Yongho got to this state, and gradually the interest of a multi-layered character portrayal takes over from simple plot curiosity.
It's difficult to say how differently Peppermint Candy would come across if re-edited to run chronologically; quite possibly, the sentimental excesses - stressed by some theatrical night-lighting and the tendency of the main character to weep uncontrollably when things go wrong, as they usually do - would seem merely over the top. There are moments of humour and moments of tenderness along the way, especially touching when see marital breakdown followed inexorably by the courtship that preceded it. Though this is a film of some substance, it will not be easy to market abroad, where its commercial ambitions will be shackled by subtitles and by the difficult-to-shift perception that any South Korean film released in the West must be strictly arthouse.