People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to escape from the monotony of everyday life, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.
With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.
This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.
Director - Lee Chang-Dong
Country - South Korea
Year - 1999
Director - Lee Chang-Dong
Country - South Korea
Year - 1999
Runtime - 129 Minutes
Previously Published by The Big Picture Magazine
At the turn of the 20th Century, the Lumiere brothers' short film Arrival of a Train at the Station defined the technological advancements of the era, and terrified audiences who believed the train would fly out of the screen having seen nothing like it ever before. Over a hundred years later, at the turn of the 21st Century, the arrival of a train in Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy is used to signify so much more than wonder and awe, being a key part of his storytelling process, and this shows not just how far cinema has travelled, but also that true auteurs do not forget its humble beginnings.
Peppermint Candy is that rarest of film, a devastatingly real human drama relayed in an innovative form of storytelling that is both masterful and timeless in its execution. As a train passes through a pitch black tunnel into the ever growing burst of daylight at the end, so begins our journey with Kim Yongho; a middle aged Korean whose life has passed him by almost as fast as the speeding carriages that traverse the screen. Told in reverse chronological order, Peppermint Candy begins in the Spring of 1999, just moments before Yangho makes a final decision to take his own life on the train tracks situated where he met his first love, and works its way back over the course of 20 years to unravel the reasons that have led this desperate man to suicide.
Used as a framing device between time shifts, the train shots were filmed from the back of a moving carriage and then reversed in order to emphasise the journey backwards through the defining moments of Yangho’s life. Chang-Dong’s choice to painstakingly sift through hours of footage to pick the most evocative and beautiful shots certainly shows; falling blossom from a tree rises back to the branches it once left, a passing jogger appears to run backwards in slow motion, and a family appear to linger cautiously watching the train pass by. These natural scenes indicate Yangho may finally be at peace with himself but the audience are still invited to take a trip back into Korea’s troubled past to see how seemingly insignificant actions can lead to consequences capable of driving a man to despair.
Many classic love stories involve train journeys, with romances blossoming from chance encounters or a last minute decision to catch a different train, but unlike the hopefulness of these meetings in films such as Before Sunrise and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the appearance of trains in Peppermint Candy reflect moments of weakness in Yangho’s life. At various points throughout the film our protagonist is seen betraying his wife, destroying a gift from his first love and standing by whilst his friends tackle an assailant, all of which are accompanied by the passing of a train in the background, which acts as a constant reminder of Yangho’s inevitable fate.
Much akin to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, which used a similar narrative twist as a plot device, Peppermint Candy’s closing scenes are moments of serene beauty as Yangho experiences a fleeting glimpse of young love. This seemingly peaceful end to the film is marred by the bittersweet knowledge of events to come; just as Yangho regrets the paths which he chose as a young adult, a mature audience will certainly relate to the loss of innocence and sense of regret that befalls not just our protagonist but everyone as time passes by.
By encapsulating certain periods in recent South Korean history, Chang-dong ensured that his film would resonate with a domestic audience and although some of his references may be lost on international audiences this is unlikely to detract from the overall experience. It is no surprise that such an articulate and politically aware director went on to become South Korea's minister of Culture and Tourism back in 2003, but it was also a relief when he returned to film-making as he continues to deliver both beautiful and powerful dramas, even if his later outings do not reach the near perfection of his overlooked masterpiece.
As the Lumiere brothers were shooting footage of a train's arrival back in 1896 they would have had no idea just how immersive and powerful the medium of film would continue to be into the next two centuries and beyond.
If you take the time to watch Peppermint Candy then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!
For previous instalments in the series click here