Incensed at Peppermint

The South Korean film Peppermint Candy begins with a man gunning down some random person who’s ripped him off and then committing suicide, then traces his life backwards through his career as a dirty cop, a cowardly soldier, and a youthful innocent.

It’s not much of a film, but it did get me thinking back myself, before Irreversible, Memento, and Betrayal, to an earlier example of reverse chronology, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, a morality tale about a successful playwright who gives up his dreams for fame and cash. As you’d expect, Kaufman’s gags fit very uneasily into the contrived framework, and on paper at least, the thing doesn’t work. (It was also excluded from the new Library of America Kaufman collection.) Stephen Sondheim tried to retrofit it as a musical fifty years later, and it bombed.

(Okay, I admit, I usually ignore films I dislike, but I came up with the title for this entry and had to use it….)

Update: Brendan Wolfe (who, if you follow the link under his name, has himself written a good assessment of Aharon Appelfeld) has asked why I didn’t care for Peppermint Candy.

I thought that the film consisted of plot elements that weren’t in themselves distinctive: a despondent, broken, hollow man committing suicide; a corrupt cop losing his morality; the man trapped in a marriage while he pines after his symbolic first love; the tragic death of an innocent in a war zone poisoning the man forever; the innocent youth naively ignorant of the horrors of the world.

The film takes two approaches to justify these generic mechanisms: first, through (backwards) structure, and second, through context (of recent Korean history). The contextual approach fails because the corrupted everyman protagonist does not become a representative of a particularly Korean experience; the movie actually feels quite American next to, for example, Shohei Imamura’s remarkable Vengeance is Mine, which makes a much greater attempt to place one man’s life (a serial killer’s, specifically) into the context of modern Japanese society. The structural approach fails because it does not provide any revelation about the content of the film. Thematically, it’s not hard to see that the man has progressed from innocent to corrupt to despondent, and the suspense is muted because the protagonist is too representative to be seen as an individual.

I haven’t seen other films by Lee Chang Dong, and it’s possible that were I Korean, I would appreciate subtexts that I missed as a foreigner.

Another update: I had originally posted this in the comments, but since no links are allowed there:

Another perverse backwards-chronology exercise is Anne McGuire’s Strain Andromeda The, where Crichton/Wise’s film The Andromeda Strain is run with its scenes in reverse order, fencepost-style. Fred Camper says:

This somewhat playful “deconstruction” of mainstream Hollywood has its virtues: with narrative causality flipped, one looks for causes of events already seen, questions traditional forms of narrative organization. But while we often hear the dialogue reversed–many lines get only single shots–longer takes contain whole conversations that we hear in the original order, providing a confusing disruption of the film’s “backwardness.” It is unique, but the interest of this rather mechanical exercise exhausts itself after a half hour.

Waggish says check it out.