Theme Tuesday - Lee Changdong - Green Fish & Peppermint Candy
For November 2018, I will be exploring and revisiting the works of one of South Korea’s greatest cinematic storytellers - Lee Changdong - which will culminate in an assessment of his latest film, Burning.
The most obvious trademark of any Lee Changdong film is the mammoth performance or performances at its center. Often, the characters seem like their natural state is explosive anger, raw grief, or some mixture of both and that they are acting unnatural when they are acting calm or civilized. Korean society is mostly a formal, polite and even familial one, but, unlike the Japanese, Koreans love expressing their emotions in a big over-the-top way. Think of the popularity of Korean dramas even overseas, where the big emotions and drama translate well across language and cultural barriers.
This conflict between polite, formal society and raw emotion is at the center of both Green Fish and Peppermint Candy in the characters of Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu) and Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-kyu) respectively. Both men are victims and perpetrators of the toxic masculinity that is only exacerbated by Confucian hierarchy and generations of tradition in Korean cultural and spiritual history.
In Green Fish, Mak-dong is one of many young men who go through mandatory military service, only to come back to no prospects. He falls in with a bunch of gangsters and distinguishes himself for going further than any other one of the henchmen will to fulfill his boss’ orders such as breaking his fingers in a car door. The intense need in Mak-dong for acceptance from an older, more powerful man is something that any Korean man can relate to, even if it is obvious that the relationship is toxic and will only end in catastrophe.
In Peppermint Candy, Yong-ho is a drunken, belligerent mess who disrupts a gathering of some old classmates in the countryside. At least a year before Memento, the film then unfolds backward as we see Yong-ho at various stages as his life. It becomes clear that while he is definitely responsible for some of the bigger misfortunes in his life (infidelity is a big one), there were other external, more insidious forces at work. The most heartbreaking part of the film is when he has to help go put down the Gwangju student uprising (one of the many demonstrations against the dictatorships that plagued South Korea post-Korean War) and he commits an act of violence that will forever shape him as a person.
Both films are still part of the Korean cultural consciousness. I have seen the famous scene from Peppermint Candy of Yong-ho on the railroad track referenced on a variety show, and the “green fish” monologue from Green Fish is parodied a lot. Green Fish is a brilliant work for any director, especially for a debut feature. Lee was transitioning from literary writing to filmmaking after having two of scripts made into features, and the story is appropriately modest for someone transitioning between mediums. Green Fish is definitely the more modest of the two, and it could be said that this movie is not much without Han Suk-kyu’s central performance, but again, memorable performances require the right set of circumstances and collaborators, and clearly, Lee had a gift for bringing out the best from his actors.
Peppermint Candy is much broader in scope, as it has often been interpreted as a history of South Korea during the 80’s and 90’s embodied in one man’s inevitable journey to destruction. Lee endows Candy with more stylistic flourish, and the repetitions of certain images and compositions is nothing short of masterful. Perhaps the one quibble I would make about both films is that they lack meaningful female characters with agency. They are basically either the traditional objects of desire or are there to serve the man’s narrative. Lee would correct this with the next three films, all of which have major female characters who are complex and richly drawn. Even in these early films, it was clear that Lee was a promising filmmaker with a lot of pointed insight into Korean society.