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Affirmation of the Lost Object:
Peppermint Candy and the End of Progress
Todd Mcgowan (bio)
University of Vermont

Nation without History

The interconnection of individual development with the evolution of a nation has served as a subject since the birth of the feature film. From D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Sergei Eisenstein's The Old and the New (1929) to Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) and Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), filmmakers have used the development of a particular individual or individuals as a way of telling the story of the nation to which the individual belongs. For Griffith, the trajectory from blissful peace to tragic suffering to radical awakening that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) undergoes mirrors the trajectory of the emergent united American nation. In a related way, Eisenstein's film follows the life of an ideal citizen, Marfa (Marfa Lapkina), whose development occurs in conjunction with that of the emerging proletarian state. For Yimou, in contrast, the constancy of Fugui (Ge You) and his desire simply to survive enables the film to register the movement of Chinese history insofar as he remains the same throughout this movement. And Loach's film reveals the violence that occurs with the founding of the Irish state through a depiction of the struggle between two brothers who end up on different sides of the historical conflict. While Birth of a Nation and The Old and the New aim at building support for what they see as a fledgling nation, To Live and The Wind That Shakes the Barley instead focus on the human cost involved in the development of a nation or national identity. Despite their vast differences, these four films—and the myriad others that adopt a similar structure—share an investment in the idea that national identity develops through history, that it is the product of a historical evolution that cinema can capture and even explicate through juxtaposition with [End Page 170] the destiny of an individual or individuals. National identity is in each case inextricable from the linear movement of time forward and the progress that occurs through this movement. The link between nation and the forward movement of time supports Susan Hayward's claim that "it seems more than appropriate that cinema was born in [the] age of nationalism" (5). Forward-moving time provides the arena in which the nation as such is able to emerge.

Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (2000) follows the structure of films such as these four insofar as it tells the story of South Korea's recent development from a military dictatorship to a modern capitalist democracy through the life of Yong-Ho (Sol Kyung-Gu). The film consists of seven sequences shown in reverse chronology, beginning in 1999 and ending in 1979, which chronicle the life of Yong-Ho leading up to his suicide in the opening sequence. Lee separates the sequences with single shots from the back of a train in which the film itself moves backward (so that in these shots the spectator sees people walking backward, smoke going back into a chimney, cars moving in reverse, and so on). Each major sequence begins with a title that indicates the place and time in which it occurs. The titles have the effect of making the film's reverse chronology self-evident and linking Yong-Ho's activities to particular moments within recent South Korean history. Yong-Ho's activities themselves and their trajectory through the different sequences also highlight this intersection.1 With the focus on the intersection of Yong-Ho's personal history and Korean national history, the reverse chronology of Peppermint Candy would seem to indicate the intent of showing the development and ultimately the origin of contemporary Korean national identity. This narrative structure shows Korean history from the perspective of the present, which allows the spectator to view historical events while knowing what they portend. Beginning at the end confers a sense of teleology on the historical origin when the film finally arrives there.

But Peppermint Candy never arrives at an origin, and the film's reverse chronology serves to undermine, rather than confirm, a teleology that leads to Korean national identity. As critic Aaron Han Joon Magnan Park puts it, "The film's reverse chronological narrative continually peels back into further reaches of Yong-Ho's past in order to question the very teleological assumptions which insist that A must lead to B which will then lead to C and so on down the line" (161). The reverse chronology disrupts the spectator's relationship to chronological time in order to call [End Page 171] into question the nation as an entity that evolves through history. As the film constructs it, nation is an entity defined by a continued flight from the trauma of sexual antagonism. This flight is not a development or a historical progression but a constant movement that leads nowhere, despite its dependence on the illusion of progress. In short, Lee Chang-dong creates a film about the historical development of the Korean nation that reveals the absence of development. Though the spectator sees how South Korea evolved from a repressive military dictatorship to an emerging democracy, the structure of the film subverts the idea of evolution. Instead of historical development, the film emphasizes the repetition of trauma, trauma that the nation attempts to escape and thereby exacerbates. Instead of images of progress, the film depicts a perpetual return to failure. The personal tragedy of Yong-Ho—his involvement in the Gwang-ju Massacre, his failed relation with Sun-Im (So-ri Moon), his disastrous marriage, and the like—operates as a synecdoche for that of the nation. The film's rejection of forward-moving time and progress is at once a rejection of the nation as a historical entity—or at least as a historical entity that could provide the subject with respite from the constitutive trauma of subjectivity itself. Nation, as the film conceives it, is the product of an investment in the idea of progress, the idea that the future will realize a national identity that always appears on the horizon. The struggle against nationalism becomes the struggle against the typical conception of temporality in which subjects are moving through time toward a novel future.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson links the emergence of the idea of nation to a shift in the experience of time. In the experience of time that makes nation possible, the clock synchronizes moments lived by disparate individuals and links these moments—and the individuals living them—together. The temporal connection provides for the possibility of a national bond. As he puts it, "The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history" (26). A forward moving chronology marked by the calendar or the clock is essential for the phenomenon of nationalism to develop. Nation is born in retroactively definitive past events and collects a group of individuals around the image of a shared future. Without this type of chronology, national identity would not be able to forge a common purpose out of disparate desires. A nation is always an entity embarked on a progressive path toward the future.

Disrupting the idea of the nation is not as easy, however, as turning away from a traditional forward moving narrative chronology. In fact, Anderson insists that reverse chronology starting from the present—precisely the storytelling method of Peppermint Candy—provides the only [End Page 172] viable way of telling a nation's story, in contrast to that of an individual, which can be told through a typical forward-moving chronology. The barrier to this in the case of the nation's story is the absence of the definitive moment of birth that the individual has. According to Anderson, "Because there is no Originator, the nation's biography can not be written evangelically, 'down time,' through a long procreative chain of begettings. The only alternative is to fashion it 'up time'—towards Peking Man, Java Man, King Arthur, wherever the lamp of archaeology casts its fitful gleam" (205). Given the fundamental limitation with which national identity must struggle, a narrative utilizing reverse chronology is the nation's ideological counterpart to the individual's forward-moving biography. In both cases, time is inherently progressive, and the movement of time justifies the current order of things. The reverse chronology of Peppermint Candy appears to fit directly into the nationalist structure proposed by Anderson, in which movement backward in time serves to cement national identity in the way that a biographical story moving forward in time does for individual identity.

But the film uses reverse chronology to different ends than justifying the present. It does not move backward in time in order to illustrate the successful progress of the South Korean nation; instead, it does so in order to depict the reoccurrence of a failure or a failed reoccurrence and thus to undermine the spectator's attachment to nation as a foundation for identity. In each of the film's seven sequences, the spectator sees Yong-Ho endure some type of individual trauma linked to a collective trauma that the developing nation experiences at the same time, building up to the coincide of Yong-Ho's break with Sun-Im and the Gwang-ju Massacre. By showing this series of traumas in reverse order in the way that it does, Peppermint Candy makes clear not only that there is no progress but that the idea or ideal of progress renders these traumas unbearable rather than lessening their impact on the subject. Progress promises to deliver the subject from trauma by restoring a lost wholeness, by making it possible to overcome the experience of traumatic loss. But progress constantly defers the realization of its promise and thereby leaves the subject unequipped to bear the experience of trauma that it can't avoid.

Peppermint Candy and the Lost Object

The idea of progress marks an attempt to overcome and deny the fundamental problem of subjectivity itself. The subject emerges as such through the act of detaching itself from an object that subsequently comes to orient the subject's desire insofar as it is lost. This lost object— [End Page 173] what Lacan calls the objet petit a—gains its constitutive power for the subject through the act of being lost and does not properly exist prior to being lost. The subject is born from a traumatic act of separation, and this structural trauma defines the subject throughout its existence. The lost object acts as an engine or cause of desire for the subject: it is only through this lost object that the subject is able to approach various other objects of desire. As long as the subject exists as a desiring being, it will continue to experience itself as traumatically detached from its lost object. Everyday objects—lovers, cars, books, jewelry—become desirable when they appear to embody the lost object, even though they never adequately do so. The subject spends its time pursuing objects of desire in search of the satisfaction that its lost object promises, but this is an unending pursuit. The failure of the object of desire to embody fully the lost object relegates the subject to perpetual failure.

It is this perpetual failure of the desiring subject that the idea of progress seeks to remedy. Even the most radical and thoughtful proponents of progress invest themselves in the belief that the subject can overcome its inherent completion and achieve some degree of stability relative to its lost object. This belief informs Marx's statement that "the bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of social production" (21). The self-limitation of subjectivity—the subject's inability to realize its desire and its consequent experience of trauma—appears obviated in this vision of a form of social production beyond capitalism. For a pragmatist like Richard Rorty who explicitly rejects the idea of progress leading to a human perfectability, this idea nonetheless allows him to avoid the fundamental impasse of subjectivity. Rorty claims, "we see both intellectual and moral progress not as a matter of getting closer to the True or the Good or the Right, but as an increase in imaginative power" (87). Though increasing their "imaginative power" does not propel subjects toward Truth, it does lessen the dissatisfaction that inheres in subjectivity itself. Rorty goes on to contend that the increase in imaginative power has the ability "to make the human future richer than the human past" (87). Though Rorty leaves the concept of richness undefined, he clearly means by it an easing of access to objects of desire for an increasing number of subjects. But the fact of the lost object's emergence through being lost undermines any idea of progress, even the most tenuous and hesitant. The reconciliation of the subject with its lost object cannot occur, and the closer the subject comes to the possibility of such a reconciliation, the more it withdraws. The relation between the subject and its lost object remains a structurally necessary failure.

In response to the structurally necessary failure, the subject faces a fundamental decision. It can embrace the failure and recognize this failure as a form of success. Through this recognition, the failed effort to [End Page 174] access the lost object becomes the successful repetition of encircling it. A change of perspective in this way has the ability to transform the subject's relation to the lost object. Rather than being an object that the subject seeks, it provides enjoyment for the subject through its very absence. Alternatively, the subject can abandon its pursuit of the lost object and seek out an identity that appears to provide the completion that the failed pursuit of the lost object does not. This is what occurs in the case of nationalism. Nationalism appeals to subjects to the extent that it does because it promises full access to the lost object but at the price, ironically, of abandoning the pursuit of this object. That is to say, the subject exchanges the repetition of failure for the promise of success, but the nation never redeems this promise. Success or wholeness always appears on the horizon and is never achieved. In this sense, nation leaves the subject in the same position relative to its lost object, but the subject loses the ability to find any satisfaction in the failed encounter with it.

The title of Lee Chang-dong's film indicates its investment in the object most opposed to national identity. National identity, as the film presents it, arises through its flight from and rejection of the lost object, which in this case is embodied by peppermint candy. Though peppermint candy is not Yong-Ho's lost object in the strict sense—he didn't emerge as a subject through pulling himself away from a jar of peppermint candy—it does serve as the representative of this object both for Yong-Ho and for the spectator. The film establishes the privileged status of peppermint candy in almost every sequence, but it is in the final one (at the picnic in Autumn 1979) that we see the origin of its value for Yong-Ho when Sun-Im gives him a piece of peppermint candy from the factory where she works. This is the first of the exchanges of peppermint candy, which are repeated throughout the film, up to the film's second sequence where Yong-Ho takes peppermint candy to Sun-Im on her death bed. Even though Yong-Ho attempts to embrace the lost object again in this sequence, he has already rejected it in favor of adhering himself to the idea of the nation and creating himself as a national subject, and as a result, the return to the lost object fails.

The foundational exchange of Yong-Ho's lost object for the prospect of national identity occurs in the film's penultimate sequence, just as Yong-Ho is being ordered away for the military action that results in the Gwang-ju Massacre. Just after the title announces "Military Visit – May 1980," we see Sun-Im attempt to visit Yong-Ho at the military base where he is stationed. The soldiers refuse to allow the visit because of the restrictions of martial law. Lee shoots the initial scene of this section in a way that emphasizes the distance between Sun-Im and the soldiers talking to her. The soldiers speak to Sun-Im from within a small building, and they do not fully pay attention to her when she comes to [End Page 175] the window. One continues to look through his paperwork, and the other continues to clean his gun. The position of the camera within the building creates a stark sense of separation: in this shot, Sun-Im exists for the soldiers and for the spectators only as a face in the window. Finally, the scene ends when one soldier receives a phone call that orders the mobilization of the unit for the suppression of a popular uprising (which would become the Gwang-ju Massacre). The soldiers quickly run off and leave Sun-Im behind without a word. The military action takes precedence over Sun-Im and her request.

In the scene that follows in the barracks, the mobilization leads directly to Yong-Ho's abandonment of his peppermint candy. The film shows soldiers rapidly assembling their gear for action with their superiors ordering them to move more quickly. Yong-Ho takes longer than the others, and a superior kicks him in order to speed him up. When Yong-Ho reaches for his box of peppermint candy to pack into his bag, the soldier kicks him a second time, again knocking him down. This kick causes the pieces of peppermint candy to be strewn across the barracks' floor, where Yong-Ho tries vainly to pick them up as other soldiers run over them. His efforts to salvage the peppermint candy earn him mockery and more kicks, and he decides to leave the candy behind on the floor in order to leave with the rest of his unit. As he runs out, the camera pans back to the peppermint candy, and we see the feet of two soldiers trample pieces of it. The violence directed toward Yong-Ho in this scene does not simply target his physical body but also his object. Yong-Ho's attempt to keep the embodiment of his lost object in the military barracks outrages the soldier who confronts him because this act represents a refusal to fully commit himself to Korean national identity.

By leaving the peppermint candy behind, however, Yong-Ho accomplishes just such a commitment. In this scene, he exchanges a connection with his lost object for the sense of identity that derives from nation as a collective investment. To become a national subject, one must sacrifice one's object for the identity and recognition that the nation provides.2 The exchange appears outwardly advantageous for the subject: whereas the lost object embodies loss and thus provides only partial enjoyment, national identity promises completion and wholeness for the subject—a satisfaction without any sense of lack. But the nation does not exist; it is the product of nothing but the collective belief in it. The illusory status of national identity undermines the possibility of this [End Page 176] total satisfaction, so that the subject who sacrifices its lost object on behalf of the nation ends up gravely disappointed, left with an invalid promissory note for an unattainable future at the expense of an experience of enjoyment in its actual partiality.

As Lee conceives it in Peppermint Candy, there is nothing more important than the acceptance, loss, or rejection of peppermint candy, but peppermint candy is not, in the end, the perfect object of desire. The film is not depicting the betrayal of the peppermint candy to indicate that we should "make love, not war" or choose romance at the expense of the demands of the larger social order. Peppermint candy does not embody an ultimate and impossible enjoyment that Yong-Ho yearns for and can never access. Instead, it marks the inherent partiality of enjoyment through the way that it metaphorizes the relationship between Yong-Ho and Sun-Im. Peppermint candy represents the failure of their relationship rather than its success, the antagonism between them that is paradoxically the source of their bond. This reminder of failure is precisely what nationalism cannot tolerate. Nation is founded on the possibility of realizing through time a collective identity in which everyone and everything fits together properly.

A Failed Relationship

Because national identity requires the abandonment of the devotion to the lost object, it institutes a structure of what Colette Soler calls "unisex." This structure demands that all its subjects orient themselves toward the promise of future fulfillment through the realization of national identity. As a result, there is no place for sexual difference. The modality of male subjectivity and its investment in the idea of completion predominates. Female subjectivity as a structural alternative must be eliminated, though there is ample space for women who define themselves according to the male model. As Soler puts it, "Unisex is the regime of phallic jouissance, and all its forms are offered equally to all. It is not that women have been deprived of this jouissance, but for a long time and without exception, they could only encounter it within the limits of their destinies as wives and mothers" (159). Though national identity includes actual women, it does not include female subjectivity—or its mode of enjoying. It rests on a masculinist foundation. This foundation appears most strikingly in Peppermint Candy just after we see Yong-Ho abandon his privileged object in the barracks.

As Yong-Ho runs out of the barracks urged on by his superiors, Lee follows him with a long hand-held traveling shot. While the image jiggles from the motion of the camera, we see him awkwardly running toward the wrong truck and then stumbling toward another one as a [End Page 177] fellow soldier redirects him. The disorientation in this shot marks Yong Ho's transition from his devotion to the lost object (and Sun-Im) to his investment in national identity. When Lee cuts from this hand-held traveling shot, a sense of stability returns. The next shot shows Yong-Ho sitting in the back of a truck with his fellow soldiers. He is now able to secure his uniform and equipment in a much calmer environment. But the scene in the truck also reveals the masculinist nature of this environment. Within a few moments, a soldier notices Sun-Im walking, and immediately catcalls commence from all the soldiers except Yong Ho. But their interest in Sun-Im is not actually an interest in Sun-Im. She serves as nothing but a catalyst for cementing the nationalist bond between them. This becomes clear as the scene transitions almost seamlessly from a group of soldiers yelling at a young woman to a group of soldiers proclaiming their fidelity to the national common cause.

The leader of the unit interrupts the catcalls by beginning an oath of bravery. A long shot of the inside of the truck shows all the soldiers moving their right arms across their body in unison as they pledge to sacrifice their blood for the sake of the nation. During this scene, Yong Ho initially looks to his fellow soldiers in order to make sure that he is performing correctly. But in the end, he appears fully inserted into the identity that all the soldiers share. Lee cuts from a shot of the soldiers chanting in the truck to a shot of Sun-Im walking, though the chant continues on the audio track as the image changes. This shot (from the perspective of the truck) indicates that Yong-Ho and the film itself are moving away from Sun-Im. Yong-Ho opts for national identity, and this requires that Sun-Im be left behind walking on the dusty road. Lee cuts from Sun-Im walking to a close-up of Yong-Ho's face, which registers his enthusiasm for the chant even as he looks back for a final glimpse of Sun-Im. The scene ends with another shot of Sun-Im walking to the sound of the soldiers chanting about their willingness to sacrifice everything for the nation. Here, the film illustrates the cost of national identity: it leaves the subject estranged from its desire.

The subject's inability to access its lost object leads it toward love as a solution to the problem of subjectivity. Through love, the subject seeks its lost object in the other, but the other never complements the subject and provides the missing object. As Lacan puts it in Seminar VIII, "there isn't any coincidence. What one lacks is not there hidden in the other. This is the whole problem of love" (53). Love represents an attempt to negotiate the impossibility of desire, but love relations replicate the problem of desire. Love can never overcome the noncoincidence of desire between the lovers, though subjects turn to love for the promise of a perfect reconciliation. Because of this noncoincidence of desire, subjects in love remain caught in the temporal loop of desire that [End Page 178] continually circles back on itself. The time of love, as Peppermint Candy demonstrates, does not point toward the future.

Though Yong-Ho's relationship with Sun-Im has a privileged status (even over his relationship with his wife), Peppermint Candy never shows this relationship at a point where it appears to be working out successfully. Instead, we first see Yong-Ho bring peppermint candy to a dying Sun-Im in the hospital, but she has lost consciousness just prior to his arrival. The next image of their relationship occurs years earlier (later in the reverse chronology of the film) when Yong-Ho reaches his hand up the skirt of Hong-Ja (Kim Yeo-Jin) while on a date with Sun-Im. The subsequent sequence depicts the missed encounter at the military barracks. The film's final sequence does not show, as one might expect, the beginning of their love relationship. We see Yong-Ho and Sun-Im before they have really fallen in love, and the sequence focuses not so much on their love as Yong-Ho's alienation from their group of friends. Peppermint Candy excludes a successful moment in this central relationship in order to make clear that what Yong-Ho has lost through the course of progress is something that he never had.

Through the way that he shoots each of the interactions between Yong-Ho and Sun-Im, Lee emphasizes their inability to achieve a direct connection. The first missed encounter occurs when Sun-Im's husband tracks down Yong-Ho and asks him on behalf of Sun-Im to visit her in the hospital before she dies. While her husband was locating Yong-Ho and bringing him to the hospital, Sun-Im slips out of consciousness and thus misses the chance for a final meeting with her beloved. Yong-Ho nonetheless goes to her bedside and gives her the jar of peppermint candy that he bought for her, and he recounts its significance for them. In this medium shot, we see an unresponsive Sun-Im lying on her bed with a tube down her throat, while Yong-Ho leans over her and talks. When he walks away, however, the film cuts to a close-up of Sun-Im face, and a tear comes out of her eye and falls down her face, indicating that she has understood Yong-Ho. By showing Yong-Ho walk away before showing Sun-Im's tear, Lee makes clear the lack of connection between them. Their interaction is necessarily unbalanced and one-sided; understanding on one side is not recognized on the other.

But the missed encounter is not a complete failure. It is the only form that the encounter in a sexual relationship can take place. The question concerning this relationship is not whether or not the successful encounter occurs but how one comports oneself relative to the failed encounter. One might embrace the failure and the partial satisfaction that it offers by clinging to the lost object. This is what Yong-Ho attempts to do at the end of the film, but he cannot resist the nation's demand (manifested through the military) that he abandon this object. [End Page 179]

Peppermint Candy seems to invite an interpretation that blames the South Korean nation and its violent development for the missed encounter between Yong-Ho and Sun-Im. Military rules prevent Sun-Im from visiting Yong-Ho, and then the order to squash the uprising, which leads to Yong-Ho's involvement in the Gwang-ju Massacre, further alienates him from her. But the film avoids a paranoid account that blames the nation while exculpating Yong-Ho (or the individual) through its account of the Gwang-Ju Massacre and Yong-Ho's specific role in the violence. Not only does Yong-Ho participate in the violence massacre, but the film's depiction of his participation reveals a psychic investment in it that goes beyond the mere fact of a soldier following orders.

On the one hand, the film shows Yong-Ho as a terrified young soldier uncertain what to do in the face of the rebelling citizens and the military pressure to react with violence. We see leaders urging him forward into the conflict, and other soldiers gunning down fleeing civilians while Yong-Ho doesn't appear to know what to do and is himself shot in the leg by a stray bullet. On the other hand, however, Yong-Ho first envisions the young woman who approaches him not as someone he doesn't know but as Sun-Im. Yong-Ho's image of the anonymous protester demonstrating against the nation is Sun-Im because to his mind, she stands in opposition to the nation. As Yong-Ho sits wounded on the ground, a young woman walks out of the darkness toward him in a long shot. It is Sun-Im, and a reverse shot of Yong-Ho reveals that this is how he sees the woman. He registers recognition on his face and even says her name. Subsequently, she appears as a young student who begs for him to let her go. Yong-Ho allows her to go home, but when a fellow soldier approaches, he begins to shoot, thinking that this is his duty. One of his stray shots hits and kills the young woman. Through this act, Yong-Ho punctuates the divide between Sun-Im and himself, and it reveals his culpability for this divide. Though the nation applies pressure on Yong-Ho, it is his own desire for the identity that nation provides that allows him to fully buckle under this pressure. Nation offers him respite from the missed encounter with Sun-Im, a missed encounter that marks their relationship from the beginning.

The ending of the film marks a rejection of any sentimentality or romanticism concerning the origin of Yong-Ho's subjectivity or the South Korean nation. We see the Honeycomb Club singing together in a circle while Yong-Ho walks away from the group and looks up at a train passing overhead. As the train comes, signified by the whistle in the audio track, the film concludes with a close-up on the face of Yong-Ho and finally a freeze frame on this image. Though this initial gathering of the Honeycomb Club provides the contrast for the reunion that begins the film in which the alienation of Yong-Ho from the group is [End Page 180] foregrounded, it does not highlight Yong-Ho's integration in the group or his connection with Sun-Im. Instead, the film ends with Yong-Ho drawn away from the group and from Sun-Im, drawn to the power of the train that seems at once to fascinate and to horrify him. By refusing to end the film with the depiction of a connection to friends or to a lover that the development of the nation has ruptured, Lee makes clear that the loss that occurs during this development is the loss of nothing substantial.

As the South Korean nation develops and as Yong-Ho participates in that development, he does experience a series of traumatic ruptures, but in each case, he loses what he doesn't have. That is to say, the accumulation of traumas that scars Yong-Ho's identity is his subjectivity; his subjectivity does not exist as a prior substance subjected to loss but emerges through the loss itself. The conclusion of the film reveals that Yong-Ho's alienation predates the series of traumas imposed on him by the nation. Like all subjects, he is originally out of synch with the social world to which he belongs and with the person he loves. National identity and its attendant idea of progress provide an apparent answer to being out of synch, which is why Yong-Ho turns to it. Even prior to the arrival of the train in the final scene, Lee shows Yong-Ho drifting away from the group. Though it sustains his alienation from the group, the arrival of the train arrests Yong-Ho drift and allows him to focus on a clearly identifiable future. This is the fundamental appeal of national identity. It offers a cure for the problem of subjectivity, an illusory path toward an answer to the question that subjectivity poses.

Derailing the Train

The appeal of the national idea depends on a conception of time moving forward toward a full realization of that idea. It is an inherently progressive idea, an idea inextricably tied to an investment in progress. The individual members of the nation experience a lack of collective identity in the present because this identity is a fantasmatic construction. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, "The national Cause is ultimately nothing but the way subjects of a given ethnic community organize their enjoyment through national myths" (202). These myths feed the enjoyment of a nation only insofar as they narrate the theft or loss of enjoyment. Paradoxically, one enjoys one's membership in a national identity through experiencing that identity as being threatened or lost. This is why nationalism never simply affirms national identity but always involves a xenophobic attack on some group of outsiders that threatens this identity. One really experiences one's French identity, for instance, while lamenting the danger that Arab immigrants pose to it. [End Page 181]

In Peppermint Candy, the threat to national identity comes from university students and the working class. The affirmation of national identity in the Gwang-ju Massacre functions through targeting student protesters and their working-class allies as the threat to this identity. Earlier in the film, Yong-Ho solidifies his standing as a national subject as he tortures a union organizer while working as a police officer.3 This incident occurs at a police station notorious for similar practices, and by setting the scene there, Lee suggests the role that the working class and its suppression has in the formation of national identity.4

National identity has a profoundly unfulfilled or uncertain status, and it must orient itself toward the future in order to create any semblance of stability. The future promises a South Korea rid of its discontented workers and students, a France without immigrants, a Germany rooted in blood and soil, and an America where everyone speaks English. Though the members of the nation cannot but experience national identity as currently under siege, they can look forward to the time when the lack will be filled and the collective identity will be complete. The future provides a milieu in which the barriers to the nation's self-identity will have been transcended.

In this sense, the national idea shares in the chronology of the cinema and the train. Both the cinema and the railroad work to install a mode of temporality focused on movement toward the future. In this mode of temporality, time exists as a rational standard that provides an order for rigidly structuring social relations. As Mary Ann Doane puts it in The Emergence of Cinematic Time,

This rationalization of time found its fullest realization in a world standardization that took its impetus from the development of railway travel and telegraphy. The standardization of time was originally effected by the railway companies themselves, which found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain comprehensible schedules in the face of scores of differing local times.

(5) [End Page 182]

Against the background of the standardization of time ushered in by the railroad, the cinema emerges.

Even where it challenges the perfect rationality of time through depictions of contingent events (as in the actualities of the Lumière brothers), cinema nonetheless affirms the conceptualization of time as nonstop forward motion toward the future. Doane adds,

The film, driven by a machine, moves inexorably forward, demonstrating the inevitable nature of irreversibility . . . . This basic commitment to the irreversibility of movement subtends and supports all the various experimentations with narrative temporality that punctuate the history of cinema. It is this basic commitment which impresses the spectator with the inexorably forward movement of film, with the "truth" of irreversibility.


Interruptions in the forward movement of the train and cinema are contingent—for instance, the breakdown of an engine or a projector—but these interruptions cannot serve to call into question the conception of time that the train and the cinema help to institute. The train and the cinema betray a formal investment in progress and work to install progress as an unsurpassable horizon for the subjects who submit to their parallel regimes.5

The train plays a central role in Peppermint Candy. Yong-Ho opts to kill himself by standing in front of a train, and Lee uses a series of shots from the back of a train projected in reverse as the transition device between each of the film's seven sequences. What's more, the film's credits are shown over a long traveling shot from the front of a train moving through a dark tunnel. After the credits, the opening shot of the first sequence, entitled "Outdoor Excursion – Spring 1999," depicts a train passing over a bridge. The camera then pans down to the ground beneath where Yong-Ho is lying on the ground. From the initial long shot, he appears dead, as if the train had run over and killed him. The subsequent panning close-up across his body reveals that he is breathing, but full of despair. Nonetheless, the scene emphasizes the violence of the train occurring through its incessant forward movement. Yong-Ho gets up and walks to the picnic of the Honeycomb Club, the event that marks the beginning and end of the film. This repeated event takes place both times at the Twin Railroad Bridge, in the shadow of [End Page 183] passing trains. The train figures so significantly in the film because of its link with the forward movement of time, with the idea of progress, and with the cinematic apparatus itself.

Peppermint Candy attempts to counter the power of the train and the logic that this technology entails. Whereas the train helps to install a temporality of nonstop forward motion, the film reveals the repression involved with this motion. An investment in the forward motion of time demands a repression of failure, and the film attempts to affirm failure through its formal structure. The link between the cinema and the train is central to the formal structure of Peppermint Candy. The film defies the forward movement of the cinematic apparatus and of traditional cinematic narrative by moving backward in time, and it uses the reverse-projected shots from the train as its sole recurring motif in order to call into question the train's seemingly inevitable motion forward.6

By structuring the film in reverse order and prominently using the reversed shots from the train, Lee constructs an aesthetic that interrupts two of the most powerful images of progressive movement in modern society. Of course, in order to do this, he must use the cinema and the railroad, which requires some degree of investment in their formal structure. But he uses the technologies against themselves. In Peppermint Candy, one sees not only the capacity of the cinema and the railroad for violently imposing the idea of progress but also their ability to undergo an aesthetic transformation that changes their historical valence. The shot from the back of the train projected in reverse changes the nature of the train itself. It allows the spectator to see what has been left behind in the movement forward and to focus on objects that one would typically ignore. In this sense, the train works against itself within Peppermint Candy. Likewise, the reverse chronology of the film as a whole transforms cinematic spectatorship into a confrontation with a repeated traumatic failure rather than a submission to a progressive movement toward wholeness.

Nostalgia's Inability to Remember

If Peppermint Candy indicts Yong-Ho for his abandonment of the lost object, it is more unsparing in its critique of the Honeycomb Club, a group of friends enjoying a twenty-year reunion at the beginning of the film and having a picnic at the same spot at the end of the film. The [End Page 184] Honeycomb Club stands in for the average subject in Korean society. Despite their working-class origins, the members of the club appear moderately successful—they include, for instance, the wife of a bus company executive—and they have an ability to sustain their devotion to pleasure even when Yong-Ho crashes the reunion and begins acting crazily. This commitment to pleasure and ability to ignore potentially traumatic disturbance—even a man killing himself on a railroad bridge—defines the average form of contemporary subjectivity. In fact, the beginning of the film even encourages spectators to locate their allegiance with the Honeycomb Club, as it depicts Yong-Ho engaging in what appear to be nonsensical and comedic antics. Because spectators do not know what lies behind Yong-Ho's outburst in the opening scene, the film implicitly prompts sympathy with the crowd looking down on him. But the film subsequently reveals the indifference of the Honeycomb Club to suffering and thereby shifts sympathy away from them. The members of this club have gathered together to commemorate the past, but they engage in an active disregard for the trauma embodied in that past.

The fact of the reunion itself indicates an inability to remember any experiences of trauma on the part of the Honeycomb Club. It marks the twenty-year anniversary of the original picnic at which the group of friends first got together, but no one in the group brings to mind any of the traumatic events that have shaped the nation since then. In fact, one attends a reunion in order to experience a nostalgic relationship to the past rather than to remember or experience again its traumas. This group originally included Yong-Ho (and he attended a similar picnic twenty years earlier), but no one invited him to the reunion. His current absence is constitutive for the group's pleasure because he represents the series of national traumas that the group cannot acknowledge. The group's lack of awareness of the traumatic history that sustains their position and their repression of that history bears some degree of culpability for the state in which Yong-Ho finds himself.

The spectator doesn't learn all the details about the Honeycomb Club until the second sequence, entitled "The Camera—3 Days Earlier, Spring 1999." This sequence provides background information on the club through a radio broadcast that Yong-Ho is listening to in his car. During a series of overlapping shots showing Yong-Ho's hands on the steering wheel and the windshield of the car, an interview on the car radio informs the spectator that the Honeycomb Club is planning a twenty-year reunion of its first picnic on the upcoming Saturday at the Twin Railroad Bridge. By delaying the spectator's access to this information, Lee creates a more alienating initial scene and also works to characterize Yong-Ho as the element that doesn't fit in this scene. [End Page 185]

The members of the Honeycomb Club are national subjects whose status depends on forgetting the trauma involved in the construction of a national identity. While Yong-Ho flees from the failed encounter with the lost object to national identity's promise of success, the members of the Honeycomb Club are so invested in a national identity that they have lost all memory of an encounter with the lost object. This is why Yong Ho's presence at the picnic is so disturbing.

In the film's opening scene, Yong-Ho appears as a disruption—a stain in the image of group pleasure. After beginning with the image of him lying beneath the railroad bridge, the film follows a staggering Yong-Ho as he walks toward the picnic occurring along the shore of the river. The people at the picnic are dancing, drinking, listening to music, and generally enjoying themselves. Yong-Ho walks awkwardly into the middle of the people dancing and bumps into two of them. He becomes the center of attention, and someone from the group recognizes him.

When the club members recognize their old friend Yong-Ho, the president of the group proceeds to apologize repeatedly to Yong-Ho for not inviting him to the reunion. The controlling logic of the group plays itself out in this gesture. The excessive apologies have the effect of emphasizing that the omission was not simply logistical (as the president claims) but linked to the group's unconscious. By apologizing too much, the president implicitly proclaims his desire to exclude Yong-Ho and lays bare the guilt he feels for this desire. As the actual presence of Yong-Ho at the picnic reveals, he is incompatible with the smooth functioning of the Honeycomb Club.

After enduring the apologies of the president, Yong-Ho steps up to sing a karaoke song. During this song, the split between him and his former friends becomes obvious and impossible to cover up. He sings about being forgotten and left behind, and then stops singing and simply begins to scream, to throw himself around wildly, and finally to run into the river. He runs down the river screaming until he reaches the railroad bridge, where he climbs up and ultimately kills himself. Lee depicts Yong-Ho's breakdown in this scene in clear contrast to the actions of Honeycomb Club. From the moment that Yong-Ho begins to act strangely, the club works to minimize the disruptiveness. When his song becomes troublesome, someone quickly moves to sing in his place. When he runs into the river screaming, they tell each other to ignore him.

Yong-Ho's extreme behavior in this scene has the effect of alienating the spectator from him and aligning the spectator with the Honeycomb Club. His screaming tirade in the river seems like the indication of mental imbalance because one views this scene without any knowledge of the events leading up to it. But the conclusion of the scene pulls the spectator away from the Honeycomb Club and to Yong-Ho. After [End Page 186] depicting Yong-Ho standing isolated in the river, the film cuts back to the Honeycomb Club continuing the picnic. We first see Yong-Ho walking on the railroad bridge in a long shot that shows the Honeycomb Club drinking and talking under a tent in the foreground. Yong-Ho emerges barely visible in the deep background from the left side of the image as he walks across the bridge. As he screams again, a woman from the group stands up and notices him. She wonders aloud what they should do about him, but the consensus of the group is that he should be ignored.

When it becomes apparent that Yong-Ho is intent on killing himself by standing in front of an oncoming train, the group reacts by starting the music and dancing rather than rushing to his aid. One member of the group walks to the railroad and begs him to come down, but the group as a whole parades its lack of concern. The long shots of the group with the small figure of Yong-Ho in the background on the railroad bridge reveal his (lack of) significance in their eyes. The final image of the group shows them frantically dancing, and the cut to Yong Ho ready to kill himself on the bridge indicates what they are attempting to avoid. Their identity depends on paying no attention to Yong-Ho and the trauma that he embodies.

By playing out the contrast between the Honeycomb Club and Yong Ho in this way, Peppermint Candy initially aligns the spectator with the Honeycomb Club and then radically shifts this alignment away from them and toward Yong-Ho. The Honeycomb Club is a group organized around nostalgia for the past, which is simply the reverse side of hope for the future. By turning the spectator away from this group and toward the traumatic past at the end of the opening scene, the film indicates its attitude toward time. Time does not lead from a past wholeness to a future wholeness but installs the subject in an unending repetition of failure. The film's narrative structure moves in reverse in order to underline the idea that time is going nowhere.

Going Back

Yong-Ho's dying statement proclaims his desire to go back, and structurally this statement leads into the reverse movement of the narrative. But the statement also has a political resonance for the film. Yong-Ho's desire to go back is at once the film's desire to reject the idea of progress essential to the development of the nation. In place of progress, the film advocates going back to the failed encounter with the lost object and the repetition of this failure. Through its formal and thematic structure, Peppermint Candy fully embraces the idea of going back expressed by Yong-Ho at the close of the film's first sequence. But [End Page 187] the way that it theorizes going back cuts against the usual understanding of this process.

When people proclaim on their deathbed that they want to go back, we tend to associate such statements with regret concerning the choices that they have made or with a desire to return to the relative innocence of their youth. Going back would offer them a chance to change their mistakes and make different decisions or to live again in the world prior to those mistakes being made. But for Peppermint Candy, going back does not involve changing the past or returning to it so much as rejecting the forward moving temporality that renders the subject unable to experience its failed relation to its object as a form of success. The problem that confronts Yong-Ho at the beginning of the film is not that of past mistakes but of an investment in the forward-moving chronology of the nation and its ideal of progress. The film depicts no time of primordial innocence of happiness that Yong-Ho subsequently lost. Instead, it shows his continuing alienation from the failed and traumatic relation to the object that defines subjectivity. In this light, going back involves returning to the interminable failure itself and refusing to leave it. It is only by inhabiting the failure of the its relation to the lost object that the subject has any possibility for experiencing the partial satisfaction that the lost object provides rather than longing for an impossible completion.

Inhabiting failure requires a different relationship to time than that offered by traditional cinematic form. Of course, not every film that adopts this relationship to time must take up the reverse chronology of Peppermint Candy. Though Memento (2000), Irréversible (2002), and Peppermint Candy demonstrate that this formal device is not a hapax or a completely singula r phenomenon, it is also not a magical solution for the problem of the cinema's complicity with a progressive temporality. Though it doesn't necessitate reverse chronology (on the screen or in one's existence), the relationship to time that Peppermint Candy exemplifies does require a disinvestment in the promise of the future. It is only insofar as subjects succumb to the lure of the promise of the future that they succumb to the lure of nationalism.

With Peppermint Candy, Lee Chang-dong creates a work of explicitly national cinema designed not just to lay bare the illusions of nation and national identity but to break with the conception of temporality that serves as the foundation for national identity. In this sense, it breaks not only from films like Birth of a Nation that ideologically affirm an idea of national identity but also from films like To Live that show the costs that this identity requires. Insofar as it is attached to the nation, national cinema, whether it is critical of the nation or not, whether it affirms the nation in order to challenge colonialism or in order to support the colonialist enterprise, almost inherently invests itself in the idea of [End Page 188] historical development and progress. By using the cinema against itself in order to subvert its inherently progressive tendencies, Lee Chang-dong elaborates a new form of national cinema in which nation ceases to be the solution to the problem of subjectivity and becomes nothing but a false promise.

Todd Mcgowan  

Todd Mcgowan teaches at the University of Vermont. He is the author of The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (2007) and The Impossible David Lynch (2007), among other books.


1. In the booklet for the English-language version of the DVD, Lee goes so far as to include a description of the main events in Korean history that were happening at the time of the film's seven sequences. This has the effect of ensuring that even the spectator not at all familiar with Korean history will be able to grasp the link between the trajectory of Yong-Ho's life and that of the Korean nation.

2. In an earlier scene, Yong-Ho also leaves behind the camera that he always wanted and that Sun-Im offers to him as a present. Because he turns his affections from Sun-Im to Hong-Ja, he rejects the gift, which has a significance related to that of the peppermint candy. Not only does photography represent Yong-Ho's passion, it also functions in the film as a rejection of forward-moving temporality. The instant that the photograph captures does not exist within the forward movement of time but instead marks a different modality of time, one that focuses on what is lost rather than what might be gained.

3. Though it depicts the brutality of the torture and the role of this brutality in forming a national identity, Peppermint Candy also stresses how torture never succeeds in forming this identity without a remainder. This is indicated in a graphic way after the torture scene. During that scene, the man tortured by Yong-Ho defecates on Yong-Ho's hand as he endures the violence. Immediately afterward, we see Yong-Ho attempting to wash his hand to rid himself of the unwanted reminder, but his fellow officers tell him that no amount of cleaning ever erases the smell entirely. The smell of the union organizer's feces forever undermines the project of national identity trying to eradicate the working class.

4. I am indebted to Hyon Joo Yoo Murphree (University of Vermont) for this point and for acquainting me with various details of South Korean history that have informed this analysis of Peppermint Candy.

5. Lynne Kirby sees the parallel between the cinema and the railroad in other terms. According to her, the cinema spectator's interaction with the screen has an antecedent in the train passenger's relationship to the outside world passing by the train window. In Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, she says, "As a perceptual paradigm, the railroad established a new, specifically modern mode of perception that the cinema absorbed naturally. In other words, the kind of perception that came to characterize the passenger on the train became that of the spectator in the cinema" (7).

6. The first filmmaker to make the train the explicit subject of cinematic exploration was, of course, Buster Keaton. Through there is a clear relationship between Keaton's train films, like Our Hospitality (1923), and Peppermint Candy, Keaton focuses on the train in order to reveal the tenuousness of its temporal and spatial regime, whereas Lee shows the train as an almost omnipotent force against which one must struggle.


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