Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Best in (Not Exactly) New Korean Cinema: Peppermint Candy (2000) & Christmas in August (1998)

With the feting of his latest film, Secret Sunshine, at this year's Cannes festival (in the best actress category) director Lee Chang-dong appears poised to break through to Western audiences - in that way that Korean art house directors do, on the festival circuit. In other words, Lee could soon be familiar to the same European and American spectators who know the names Im Kwon-taek and Hong Sang-soo, should that is Secret Sunshine receive the attention that some critics have been arguing it deserves. (Of course, there is another stratosphere of Korean art house success - namely Park Chan-wook's Oldboy [2003] and Bong Joon-ho's The Host [2006] - that does not apply here.)

With that perhaps overly optimistic scenario in mind, it would seem fit to turn our attention to the most widely acclaimed of the director's previous three features, 2000's Peppermint Candy, which remains in the opinion of many one of the pivotal works of the New Korean cinema. Peppermint Candy opens with a small, light colored dot in the upper half of the screen that continually increases in size. Soon, it becomes clear that said shape is the opening of a rail tunnel that we are about to exit in the film's inaugural phantom ride. After this single take opening, Lee includes a title, 'Outdoor Excursion Spring 1999,' before cutting to a middle-aged man lying motionless on the ground. The aforesaid prefatory image, as we will soon discover, becomes a visual motif for the picture, which Lee has structured as a series of scenes or sets of scenes that are arranged in reversal chronological order. Concurrent with this, it will also become evident that the transitional phantom rides are themselves spooled backwards, reinforcing the film's narrative-in-reverse organization.

In this opening passage, the whiskered, disheveled gentleman to whom we are initially introduced, Park Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), rises from the ground and approaches a group of late thirty-somethings who are picnicking on the banks of a river. Park walks into the center of the group, bumping into the puzzled picnickers; however, these bewildered day-trippers soon recognize Park's identity, he was old friend of theirs, and one of the celebrants even says that he wanted to call Park, but no one knew his whereabouts. Following his uncomfortable reintroduction to the group, Park commences singing karaoke with a song featuring the lines "what can I do if you leave me behind" and "I loved you so much." At this point, with only the strangeness of the lead's gestures to guide us, we anticipate that these lines of dialogue might tell us something about his behavior, perhaps that he was long ago estranged (or even abandoned) by the group he now confronts.

After this opening salvo, Park continues with his inexplicable behavior, walking out into the nearby river, and a moment later, climbing onto the top of a rail bridge. After a train passes by on an adjoining track - much to the relief of his acquaintances - a second approaches on the bridge upon which he stands. Thrusting his arms open, Lee waits for the on-coming train, which obliterates the protagonist a moment later.

Immediately prior to this accident, Lee freezes on Park's gesture, relayed in a freeze frame, and then we have the film's second phantom ride image accompanied by a subsequent title reading 'The Camera. Three Days Earlier. Spring 1999.' In this sequence we are introduced to the protagonist's despair in the days before his suicide - he even holds the gun to his head, though as per the film's structure we know he does not pull the trigger. Likewise, through rare a moment where the dialogue is used for exposition, we are made aware that he has a wife that has left him, and in a scene intentionally robbed of its poignancy, we see the lead meet with a former love, from whom he receives a gift whose significance only becomes clear toward the film's conclusion.

As we continue to move backward, Park next introduces the spectator to his wife in the throws of an affair, and thereafter to someone whom Park knew when he used to be a police officer (by this point he has entered the private sector and become a successful businessman). In this passage he rhetorically asks the second male, while they stand side by side in a public restroom, whether "life is beautiful." While this question seems to possess an ironic quality given the scene that we have just witnessed, again Lee invests it with a deeper resonance as his narrative continues its backward trajectory.

Lee's narrative reaches a climax in the film's penultimate passage, 'Military Visit May 1980,' named for a visit from the protagonist's first love Sun-im (Moon So-ri). (Spoiler for the less detail conscious viewer: Sun-im is the woman we are introduced to, on her death bed, three days prior to Park's suicide.) During this scene, coinciding with the declaration of martial law on the Korean Peninsula, Park commits an act that it becomes clear shaped the totality of his future life, leading ultimately to the suicide that opens the film. Similarly, the declaration of martial law was a moment from which contemporary Korean history. In fact, as has been cofirmed by a Korean colleague of mine, all of the key moments in Lee's film correspond to quintessential junctures in the nation's history. The personal and political are consubstantial in Lee's picture. Peppermint Candy is a national history in the form of an individual-centered narrative.

In delaying his revelation of the aforementioned acts, Lee refuses the simple causal reading that would dominate the same narrative spooled in chronological order. Instead, Lee secures a new position for his spectator: as a voyeur privy only to the acts and the immediate clues disclosed in the scene; in Peppermint Candy we see as we always see the unfamiliar, from the outside, without the privilege of knowing the thoughts of another. At the same time, Lee's structure suggests, as the narrative slowly proceeds in reverse, that life was once better for Park, and as we are introduced to Sun-im to a greater and greater degree, that somehow the film's protagonist has lost his opportunity to be happy. Again, the film's reverse narrative does not allow the spectator to develop a false hope; whereas a more conventional narrative would always allow for a possible future happiness in that which has yet to occur, we know that things are going to end badly for Park. Lee rends with certainty and all lack of ambiguity the narrative of a life that was not as it could have been. The past truly cannot be remedied.

This same feeling of a life not consummated pervades Hur Jin-ho's much more conventional Christmas in August (1998), another of the New Korean cinema's key works. Like Peppermint Candy, Christmas in August centers ultimately on a love affair that is not meant to be, in its case due to the terminal disease afflicting the film's male protagonist, Jung-won (Han Suk-kyu). Jung-won operates a photo gallery, where he shortly meets a pretty young woman, Da-rim (Shim Eun-ha), who is at least a decade his junior. She begins to come by more and more often to chat with the perpetually smiling Jung-won, of whom at no point does she know that he is in the final days of his existence. For his part, the unmarried Jung-won - he does have a past love who comes by asking about his health and why he never married; he tells the woman he was waiting for her - suffers in silence, at night, and in a drunken confession to a male friend, discloses his numbered days, though his companion does not seem to believe him immediately.

As Hur's light-hearted, chaste romance progresses, we are at once aware that their nascent relationship cannot work out, even as the film's forward trajectory reserves the possibility for a (conventional) miracle, unlike Peppermint Candy where such a scenario is prevented by the film's reverse structure. Nevertheless, Christmas in August conveys a life that could have been, a possible happiness finally denied to its protagonists. Indeed, Hur crystallizes this theme in one of the film's final images: Jung-won looks at Dar-im in the distance; we see his out-of-focus hand - Hur uses a telephoto lens to compress the distance - touching the section of glass behind which the woman is visible. As such, the glass itself becomes a pressing reminder of the impossible gap that separates the pair - his illness - however close they have become.

Ultimately, if Hur's film lacks the immutability of Peppermint Candy's tragedy, it gains in pathos through our awareness of the circumstances of the romance, in comparison again to Da-rim who does not share our and Jung-won's knowledge of the situation. Indeed, this is a film where everything meaningful can be read in the protagonists' gestures, emotions, and especially in the male lead's withholding of the latter. Christmas in August's power comes from our knowledge of the suffering that Jung-won keeps hidden in his final few days of bliss, behind his grinning mask.

In this regard, Hur's film owes no small debt to the cinema of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, whose influence can at times be overstated with regard to contemporary Asian cinema. Here, there can be no mistaking the director's inspiration - though it could just as well have been Hou Hsiao-hsien's early work which that director has long claimed was not inspired by Ozu, though he would later make an homage (Cafe Lumiérè, 2003) to the director - which was always true of Kore-eda Hirokazu's After Life (1998). In fact, like that death-centered narrative, Hur utilizes frontal set-ups that coincide with snap-shots taken in Jung-won's studio. Likewise, Christmas in August compellingly overlaps with a second film from that same year, Olivier Assayas's Late August, Early September (itself a clear homage to Ozu in title if not in subject) in both theme and once more, even in title.

Of course, Peppermint Candy also has a significant correspondence of its own: Christopher Nolan's 2000 Memento. Nolan's film, which in the opinion of this writer Peppermint Candy bests in virtually every regard, including the wonderful lead performance that has been heretofore neglected, uses the structure to convey the protagonist's state of amnesia to the spectator, where again Peppermint Candy uses a similar structure to make one's fate irreversible. Peppermint Candy says something profound about time, namely that it cannot be countered, whereas Memento's time structure smacks of gimmickry, though executing in a highly entertaining and innovative manner.

With the curious overlap between Christmas in August, Peppermint Candy and the aforementioned better-known Western (and Japanese) art house films, the development of the New Korean cinema as a shadow to the established canon begins to emerge. While again the films of Im, Hong, Park and Bong have begun to remedy the neglect of a national cinema whose vitality has long preceded its visibility, it is high time that some of the very best works in this tradition become better known to the Western cineaste. Hopefully Secret Sunshine can accomplish this for Lee. For Hur, wide-spread appreciation may not be as immediate, though any viewer with a DVD player (the region 3 Edko Video DVD for this film will pay in region 1 players) will have the opportunity to see what we have been missing in the neglect of the New Korean cinema - a work of boundless warmth and humanity, the very antidote to the high-key, extreme Korean cinema best known to film-lovers outside Korea. At the very least, Christmas in August and Peppermint Candy confirm the substantial breadth of the New Korean cinema.


Michael E. Kerpan Jr. said...

"Christmas in August" was the very first Korean film I ever saw. And I loved it from the start. For some reason, however, I did not do any further exploration of Korean cinema for another year or so. Perhaps it was because I was in the midst of uncontrolled Ozu-mania -- and I only checked CiA out because it had been mentioned as neo-Ozu-esque?

It was only when I went with my children to see "Take Care of My Cat" (during its brief and limited theatrical life), that I began to take a stronger interest in Korean cinema. To be honest, this was partly due to the fact that this film introduced me to BAE Doo-na. In any event, after this point, I began exploring Korean cinema more diligently -- and one of the first names to come up was LEE Chang-dong.

"Peppermint Candy" is probably the best of his first three films, though "Oasis" is also incredibly compelling. It is hard to imagine a film that could use "going backward" through a protagonist's life more powerfully. I am very anxious to see Lee's new film -- but suspect I won't see it until after it is released on DVD in Korea.

As to HUR Jin-ho, his second film "One Fine Spring Day" focuses on the importance of sound (of hearing and -- more important -- listening) even more rigorously than "Christmas in "August" deals with issues of looking and seeing. It has a devastating moment when one character, seemingly making an off-handed remark, is actually saying something of crucial importance to the future happiness of both -- and the other clearly doesn't "hear" (or chooses not to listen to) the message clearly underlying the words spoken. Unfortunately, there is no ideal DVD edition of this film. The high-quality Korean DVD inexplicably left off the originally-promised subtitles -- and the sub-titled HK DVD is only passable at best.

Concluding note -- Another Korean film of great importance, linked to both Lee and Hur is PARK Kwang-su's "A Single Spark", for which Lee was a principal scriptwriter and Hur was an assistant director.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thank you Michael for your excellent elaboration. Knowing nothing about HUR before I saw "Christmas in August," I am happy to know there is another potentionally rewarding screening in my future - if that is I can find the film. Also, I too saw "Take Care of My Cat" a few years back and enjoyed it very much. And "Oasis" is sitting on my desk ready to be viewed so it's great to hear that it is "incredibly compelling."