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Peppermint Candy: redefining Korean masculinity.

By Jose Alejandro Perez Eyzell

Alejandro, a Venezuelan born in 1981, has recently been introduced to the film and theatre world. At age of 18 (sponsored by a scholarship) he studied at Waterford Kamhlaba College (an international institution in Swaziland, Southern Africa) for 2 years, where he explored modern theatre and was involved in theatre for community development projects in the region. Now, 3 years later, he has been sponsored by another scholarship to study Film and Theatre Studies at Dankook University in Seoul, South Korea; where he is undertaking first year undergraduate studies and deeply interested on Korean Film and Theatre, as well as other Oriental performing arts.

Peppermint Candy could be easily seen as a melodrama that only explores the degradation of an individual along with the social system that shaped him. Yongho's life (the chosen protagonist) is presented in reverse, narrated from when he realizes he has 'touched bottom' and decides to jump to a train railway bridge; where by facing an oncoming train and screaming "I'm going back" (1), commits suicide. This event takes us through a road of different and painful experiences that shaped Yongho into a brutal policeman after he was a young man full of ideals and illusions. Therefore, we slowly learn how Yongho loses his small enterprise and all his money after its bankruptcy. His failure in his marriage to a woman he only used (Honja), how he loses his dreams of becoming a photographer and of marrying his true love (Sunim). All these events are analyzed through the psychological exploration of the main character. However, we are clearly hinted to how they were caused by an oppressive and manipulating society that killed his individuality, his innocence and ideals; and made of him a product with no hope, no love, neither aspirations.

Thus, Lee Chang Dong explores effectively how the political, economical and social crisis that Korea experimented in the Eighties (with the iron fisted regime of General Chun Doo Hwan and the Kwangju massacre), and the Nineties (with the initial ride of Korean economical expansion and its consequential crisis in 1997) affected this 'modern anti-hero', a character that Korean audiences could easily identify as a symbol of degradation of their own society. I consider then, Peppermint Candy criticizes on how a repressive system can destroy an individual. However, because the movie portrays a patriarchal and militarized society in male oriented scenario, issues that explore a masculine ideology and a definition of the latter within the portrayed society are valid and even integral to the main theme. Therefore, Peppermint Candyy analyses a militarized masculinity mindset that oppresses its individual, as well as searches for an ultimate masculinity not shadowed by a military system. I believe Peppermint Candy pleas for redefining masculinity in post-military regime Korea.

The first and most important element that applies to a masculinity ideology in the movie, is the portrayal of a militarized society that clearly shapes Yongho. Seung-sook Moon, a scholar from Harvard University, explains how the military control over the Korean state influenced (during its last three decades) in the creation of a militarized society that prevailed its masculine nature (since the military is a male-dominated institution) (2). He expands on the idea militarized masculinity was marked by elements such as "the organized use of violence, rational calculation and discipline, and distance from reproductive activities culturally defined as feminine" (3), which are clearly shown in the movie and used by the protagonist, a clear product of his male oriented society. Therefore, we are explained in detail how Yongho is a calculating person: when he decides to go to the riverbank picnic to kill himself, when he buys the gun and start planning who he should kill to relief his anger, when he has someone to spy on his wife (Honja) and later abuses her after he realizes she has an affair. Also, we see in detail the organized use of violence in the torture scenes, where Yongho brutally abuses of the student to get the information they needed, or the Kwanju massacre scene, where the sergeant abuses the men by kicking them and "calling them bitches"(4). To continue, we see how the protagonist keeps distance from activities defined as feminine: Yongho gives Honja neither respect nor consideration in her pregnacy and leave her alone when having their child. Also, we have a scene where Yongho and his fellow policemen talk about the role of fatherhood, where they are only to talk with their children's teacher after they 'messed up' at school. These are just few examples that describe how this character fits in Moon's concept of militarized society completely and how the movie could reflect upon a society that still shapes all their men after their 26 months of compulsary military service. Thus, when considering the movie is a criticism of Korean troubled society, I believe Peppermint Candy could be interpreted as a criticism to the military system itself. The latter is played in fault when shapes its individuals into failing products through traumatic experiences: Yong-ho was changed into a cynical man after his involvement in the Kwanju massacre and his first torture, experiences that never allowed him to "...forget the smell" of a rotten system(5). Therefore, I believe the masculinity issue is presented as an integral element of the plot, where its modern role within a changing post military society is questioned.

Although we see how 1999's Yongho dominates the masculine definition throughout the movie, he is not shown as the only masculine element of this movie. We are briefly introduced to other male characters and how they are affected by traumatic experiences: Sunim's husband and the tortured student are perfect examples to analyze. However, just like Yongho they are not presented as the movies' solution for redefining masculinity in Korean society in spite of their apparent different attitudes and strong moral values. Both are shown as characters that had been shaped by pain and re consequently product of their experiences. Therefore, cannot have a pure masculine ideology as they might have not hope for change The student experienced physical torture, where he resigned to his ideals to stop the pain; and the husband experienced the degradation of his wife through a disease that will eventually kill her. Therefore we are led to think that in Lee Chang Dong's fascinating militarized world, male characters could be turned into pessimist individuals that might not believe that "life is (truly) beautiful" (6).

However, both characters are not fully explored, when we fail to observe in detail how they were shaped by the militarized concept. They both passively confronted Yongho's inner moral system, and therefore only served as tools to lead to 1999's Yongho to agnorisis. They placed him within a self 'fight-or-fight' situation characterized by reversal 'of the natural order' and creation of chaos within the characters' system of believes. Thus, the main role finds him within dialectic between the innocent 20 year-old Yongho and the present day Yongho. He achieves to understand 1999's Yongho needs to be expelled out from this universe through a 'melodramatic' suicide, as he represent a product of the system and the main antagonist of the portrayed system. Therefore, he gives room to reveal Lee's solution for the masculinity and ideology crises: young cathartic Yongho himself, who loves nature and "cries at foreseeing his future" (7).

The movie offers as a solution to the troubled masculine ideology; a pure, free and positive individual that has not been shaped by political games or controlled by a system. Therefore, a criticism is portrayed as well as the request for a redefinition of masculine elements that still trouble Korean male individuals. Lee Chang Dong allows his audience to think of a possible happiness in a near future but demanding political and social change in order to achieve it.

Another element that highlights the masculine ideology in Peppermint Candy is the marginalization of the women role within the narration. As I reflected before the movie concentrates a story about a man's life through a male perspective, where we fail to observe any feminine ideology explored in depth. We learn that women are oppressed by individuals representing a male-oriented society, like Honja is directly oppressed by Yongho. But we were not allowed to know their real feelings, such as how Yongho's first love, Sunim, truly felt after he played mentally with her and rejected her in their last meeting, or an expansion on the wife's feelings after their troubled relationship. Female roles are shown as either element for inspiration and love (Sunim) or "as objects to be fucked (and manipulated, cheated on) and ignored"(8) (Honja). Thus, women roles are used as tools to present a male-oriented plot, which could allow the director to expose a criticism on the use of women in a militarized structure. However, it is an open question for me whether the director decided to use this mechanism consciously to criticize the female position in society or if Peppermint Candy only originally intended to target a male audience or even if the director was influenced by a militarized mindset himself. Either reason, the plot could fail to target female audiences when they might not find easy to identify themselves with a story about a man in male society. And I believe this reflects the importance of the masculine ideology within Peppermint Candy and allows a total exploration not only of the political degradation of a country but also its social degradation within its masculine moral ideology.

Symbolism within the scenario also enhanced and highlighted both Lee Chang Dong's artistic concept as well as the degradation of masculinity within the movie. The ongoing train that reminds us the tragic fatale of Yongho's life is the more emphasized symbolism and more when 'the train' has been considered as a symbol of man-power in the contemporary history. This particular train is always shown after tragic events in his life as if to remind us it is society and masculinity (what the train could represent) are the ultimate causes for Yongho's disgrace. We observe the train passing after Yongho sells his camera (itself a symbol of his young age ideals and aspirations), after he cheats on his wife after beating her brutally, and so on. Also, the peppermint candies are another symbolism itself that could reflect masculinity and innocence. They are his first love's gift, a trophy, and it is also a way for young Yongho in the military service to remember her and to prevail his masculinity (the girl he loves). However, it is crashed on the floor by a sergeant together along with his innocence and ideals. After he left the candies behind, his life made turmoil and he lost his 'innocence after being raped by a callous world'. Thus, the candies could represent a symbol of pure masculinity in a "sweet-centered movie wrapped in a tar coating" (9). Thus, these and other symbolism reflect and define masculinity inPeppermint Candy.

All the above elements show how Peppermint Candy is a movie that present integrally masculine ideologies and issues in its main plot. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight once again that the focus of the movie is not masculinity itself. I believe the movies' moral occult is the search of happiness, and though the masculinity question is an essential part of the melodramatic mode it is inaccurate to consider it as an only universe. Lee Chang Dong believes that "political history did not leave personal history alone"(10) and this lies upon the main melodramatic mode. Peppermint Candy is a certain story about a certain individual within a political society that shaped him and not vice versa. However, masculinity clearly sets a background in political and social history contexts and affects the mindset of an individual. And it is integral when the movie cries for a redefinition of society because it is a male-oriented society after all. Thus, Peppermint Candy is shown at the end as a movie that explores masculinity and its role in Korean society, and pleas redefinition of Korean masculinity: from a militarized defined to an individual and pure one.


  1. Line from the motion picture Peppermint Candy
  2. Moon, Seung sook."Militarized Masculinity and the State in South Korea." Synopsis. Harvard University. <<http://www.asianst.org/absts/1995abst/korea/kses100.htm>>
  3. IBIS
  4. Proyect, Louis. "Peppermint Candy". Review. Columbia University.
  5. IBIS. Refers to a line from the movie Peppermint Candy: after Yongho's first torture, he tries to clean his hands after the tortured man defecated on him. A fellow policemen tells him he won't be able to forget the smell.
  6. Line from the motion picture Peppermint Candy
  7. Piccino. No title. Review. "Il Manifesto".
  8. Proyect, Louis. Peppermint Candy. Review. Columbia University.
  9. Havis, Richard. Peppermint Candy. Review. <<http://www.filmfestival.com/cannes_2000/directors_peppermint.htm>>
  10. Scott, A. O. "A Life Retreats From Tragedy to Happy Beginnings" Review. New York Times. <<http://www.cineclickasia.com/cineclick/filmreview_view.asp?num=1&no1>>

Further bibliography:

  1. Burns, Alex. "Film Melodrama and sociological Propaganda". <<http://www.desinfo.com/pages/article/id1463/>>
  2. -Leong, Anthony. Peppermint Candy Movie Review. 2001. <<http://www.mediacircus.net/peppermintcandy.html>>

Peppermint Candy is available to purchase on DVD at HKFlix.com. Click here for information.

Peppermint Candy