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

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...


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