South Korean director Lee Chang-dong may have come to the attention of mainstream viewers outside Asia when his most recent film, Burning, snagged former The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun for a lead role. The dear departed Glenn raised the film’s profile to be sure, and hopefully it won over new fans to Lee’s peculiar brand of exploration of the human condition. Where many filmmakers see space for redemption and latent goodness, Lee sees the unsavory, the self-destructive and the violent. To be fair, this started well before he went to work for the government (Lee was Korea’s minister of culture, sports and tourism from 2003 to 2004).
In truth, Burning is something of an outlier in Lee’s oeuvre; it’s a character study hung on the framework of a slow-burning (no pun intended) thriller. Beginning with his debut in 1997, Green Fish, Lee has served up one searing analysis of the state’s impact on the individual after another, most often hidden within the folds of melodrama. But by only his second film as director, Lee’s fixation on lost innocence (and if we’re being honest, not just lost but utterly annihilated innocence), alienation, toxic masculinity, memory and trauma, and social and political repression floated to the surface and has never truly evaporated. In 1999, Lee’s Peppermint Candy laid the groundwork for the polished, more covertly political dramas about marginalized Koreans — be it by age, ability or affluence — that cemented Lee’s auteur label a few years later: Oasis, Secret Sunshine and Poetry.
Peppermint Candy made the bold narrative choice to start with the main character’s suicide and then retraces the steps that brought Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) to such despair he decided to end his life, a life that mirrored South Korea’s path during its tumultuous Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan years. Going farther back in time with each subsequent flashback, we first meet Yong-ho as a despondent young man pondering who he should use his newly purchased gun on and visiting a dying friend (Moon So-ri), until finally being introduced to him as an idealistic student yet to be poisoned by the machinations of the state. There’s little question by film’s end as to what really killed Yong-ho.
As transparently symbolic as it may be, the film gracefully skims over many of the landmark moments in South Korea’s recent past as a failing autocracy and then a budding democracy: the Gwangju democracy movement, itself the subject of dozens of films, and the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis as just two touchstones reflected in the defining points of Yong-ho’s life — with his failed marriage and failed career as an increasingly brutal cop and, later, ruthless businessman as two of the more critical. But whenever Candy slips back in time, its reverse chronology reveals just a little more about how the system shaped Yong-ho into the sorry excuse for a man he became, and ironically reveals how he was unable to see a way forward, even though we as viewers could see he was heading for disaster. Peppermint Candy, and Green Fish before it, may not be Lee’s most nuanced work — that is Burning (despite its substitution of a cipher for a woman) — but it’s a marvel of foreshadowing that reminds us how rare it is that a filmmaker arrives on the scene fully formed.