Korean Movie Review #1: Peppermint Candy (2000)

Peppermint Candy Korean Movie 3( Source )

For the fledgling movie reviewer, revealing one’s inexperience with cinema is never a wise move. And adding that this inexperience stems from an at best indifferent, at worst active dislike of the subject? Positively suicidal, at least in terms of becoming known as an authority on it.

Fortunately however, that is not my aim with this post. Rather, it marks the first of many movie reviews I’ll write as I personally struggle to see Korean cinema in a new light from now on, hopefully providing readers with an entertaining and informative guide in the process.

I won’t bore readers with the combination of personal factors that led me to under-appreciate Korean cinema for the last 9 years here then; suffice to say, many had little to do with the quality of Korean cinema itself. Hearing of them though, no less than a professor of Korean popular culture, a professor of Korean literature, and a published science-fiction writer all recommended Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) for me to start with (the latter even loaned me his boxed set of director Lee Chang-dong’s DVDs with which to do so), so I had high expectations for this movie. And even if you’re not blessed with such uniquely knowledgeable friends yourself, it doesn’t take long to learn that it has a strong place in Korean popular culture (it was the first domestic movie chosen as an opening film for PIFF for instance), and the screenshot below in particular.

And yet for all my friends’ high praise, for all the accolades, I found this to be a bleak, deeply frustrating movie. Feeling that perhaps my own inexperience was to blame, I forced myself to watch it again, this time with my wife. But unfortunately I gained nothing from the benefit of hindsight – more things to critique in fact – and indeed my wife even fell asleep well before the end.

Peppermint Candy Korean Movie( Source: mamimisama )

The film opens in spring 1999, with main character Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu {설경구}) joining a 20-year reunion of his old factory social group on the banks of a river. Quickly revealed to be bitter and angry, his behavior extremely erratic, within a few minutes he’s welcoming his death from an oncoming train on a nearby railway bridge, screaming the now classic line “I want to go back!” (또 다시 돌아갈래). Then it’s 3 days earlier (the first of 6 backward jumps in the story), and we see him buying a gun, then toying with killing himself. Soon it emerges that despite appearances, he’s virtually penniless, and that this is the result of his former business-partner stealing his money, a loan shark charging exorbitant rates of interest, and possibly his ex-wife also (played by Kim Yeo-jin {김여진}).

Then it’s 5 years earlier, and we see him as a successful business-person, and I anticipated seeing the events that led to his financial downfall. Instead, only the dissolution of his marriage is portrayed, for which both partners prove to be at blame. At which point that I began comparing the movie to Clerks.

Yes really: the 1994 budget US comedy. Please bear with me for a moment.

Easy to miss amongst all the jokes, towards the end of Clerks there is a scene where the main character Dante Hicks (played by Brian O’Halloran) complains about everything that has happened to him that day, as, indeed, he has been doing throughout the entire movie. What sets this scene aside from those though, is that in response, Randal Graves (played by Jeff Anderson) points out that everything he’s complaining about is in fact entirely his own fault. And with those 10-15 seconds and 2 or 3 lines, for me the movie was transformed from merely a good but ulitmately forgettable comedy – I find it difficult to laugh at today – to something with a clear moral, and one that I have taken to heart ever since.

Granted, at the age of 18, one is probably more inclined to deliberately seek out such morals from movies than at the age of 33, imaginary or otherwise. And as the events that transformed Young-ho from a very innocent and dreamy young man to the bitter and twisted individual that commits suicide 20 years later are revealed, undoubtedly there is much in this vein to be gained from Peppermint Candy also, particularly with such suburb acting from Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Yeo-jin, and Moon So-ri (문소리), playing his first girlfriend.

Peppermint Candy Love Motel( Source: momo369 )

Most of the important ones however, such as how he came to lose all his money, why he joined the (then notoriously brutal) police, why he married his wife despite not loving her, and why he treated his first girlfriend so appallingly, are simply never answered. And therein lies the rub: these gaps are simply inexplicable in a movie about so focused on the linear, chronological development of a single character (albeit in reverse), emphasized cinematographically throughout by footage of trains between each segment in the story, and also – noticeable after a second viewing – the sounds of trains passing in many important scenes. Just like Darcy Paquet of Koreanfilm.org then, I too found that

…ultimately the main character remains out of our grasp. Lee denies us any easy explanations for our hero’s character, or excuses for his behavior. The film frustrated me as I was watching it for the first time; I wanted greater access to the hero’s feelings.

Unlike him however, I wasn’t “shattered” upon reaching the end of the movie: more exasperated. And I thoroughly regret watching it twice.

Perhaps as if to subconsciously compensate for these gaps in a movie that they otherwise clearly thoroughly enjoyed though, I have noticed many other reviewers of this movie (particularly Anthony Leong and Thomas Spurlin) finding Young-ho’s character to be both a product of and metaphor for the turbulent 20 years of South Korean history that the movie covers. But this is simply bogus: having a knowledge of that history doesn’t add anything to the movie, nor does the movie in any way educate you if you lack it. Moreover, Young-ho’s financial troubles for instance (vague as they are), are by no means related to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and what happens to him during his military service in Kwangju May 1980 could have happened at any other time before Korea democratized. Indeed, given that the movie’s narrative would have worked equally as well in 1969-1989 or even 1959-1979, I’d argue that in fact its setting is almost irrelevant.

Peppermint Candy Moon So-ri( Source: momo369 )

While I ultimately don’t recommend seeing this movie then, readers that already have may well disagree with my take on it, and I’m more than happy to be persuaded of its virtues. And I do, again, acknowledge the superb acting, and should also point out that the movie is also interesting for its depiction of Korea in the 1980s, for which I highly recommend the book Yogong: Factory Girl by Robert F. Spencer (1988) also to get a sense of just how different daily life was in Korea then.

But however naive and unsophisticated it sounds, I still apply the same standards to movie today as I did when I was 18. And lacking any readily discernible moral then, nor educating viewers about an issue or giving me a fresh new perspective on a previously well-known one, I failed to see the point of this one.

Next week: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (바람난 가족; 2003), which coincidentally features two of the same three main actors.

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33 thoughts on “Korean Movie Review #1: Peppermint Candy (2000)

  1. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

      • Yes, I have seen it (though about 6 years ago), and I always include it among the list of films I would watch again if I had the time (a list which also includes Good Lawyers Wife). Why is it on the list? I guess it’s because it’s the first film I saw which tried to get to grips with some of the RoK’s recent history. Maybe next time round it won’t be so fresh.

        • Ah, I see. As you probably gathered from the post and other comments, personally I don’t really think it does get to grips with Korea’s recent history, but we can agree to disagree on that. And I can fully appreciate the value of “firsts”: I still have fond memories of all of the movies I saw at my first international film fesitval in 1995 for instance, despite them all being quite unremarkable really!

    • Printed out and read, with thanks.

      While it definitely got me thinking, and made me look at individual scenes in much more detail however, I’m afraid I found it to be a simply terrible article, and very representative of the sort of academic writing about cinema that has put me off the subject ever since I was an undergraduate.

      Of course, I make allowances for Kim Soyoung (presumably) not being a native speaker; I can even forgive her mentioning what occurs in the segment in Kwangju in May 1980 roughly a dozen times too. But not only are there are several factual mistakes in her analysis, but they’re consistent with her grafting onto the movie of a treatise involving (for starters) Freud’s concept of the “uncanny”, US geopolitics, male subjectivity, modernism, and capitalist developmental states…that simply isn’t there. Seriously, the more I read it, the more Kim Soyoung reminded me of a medieval astronomer, devising an elegant account of the workings of the heavens consistent with his or her philosophy, but unfortunately largely uninformed by actual observation of it…

      • Wow. You do see the irony in a blogger whose main trade is unpacking the many codes and concepts hiding in TV ads accusing a paid pro of “grafting” various ideas onto a movie, right?

        Male subjectivity? Capitalist development? Not there at all???

        Seriously, the more I read it, the more I can’t decide whether your appraisal could come across as less informed or more arrogant.

        • Well, whatever you decide, you seem to take great offense at my having the temerity to critique the analysis of a “paid pro.” As a lowly blogger, perhaps I should know my place?

          Being familiar with Korea though, with its combination of mediocre universities and a status-conscious culture that grants professors a great deal of authority and respect almost completely regardless of their knowledge of their subject, amount of original research done and/or teaching ability, then I’m surprised that you have such distinctions. Granted, creating and policing the boundaries with the public (including bloggers) is very much in the corporatist interests of academia worldwide, but they seem particularly artificial in the Korean case.

          So yes, while I’m not for a moment saying that Kim So-young is not an expert on Korean cinema, nor that all of her analysis is invalid, I stand by my accusation that in general she grafts on to the movie a great deal that simply isn’t there. Meanwhile, if you ever believe I’ve done the same for any advertisements here, then by all means engage with me in the comments section(s) of the relevant post(s); a dialogue, I might add, that might make contributors to the Korea Journal look a little less omniscient if we could similarly have it with them.

          • Yes, well… invoking the Ph.D in film studies vs. blogger could be all about “policing boundaries”… or it could be about the fact that in training for years and gaining a Ph.D from NYU, Kim might have honed her skills in analysis and persuasive power a bit more than you have. And that you simply saying to her analysis, “no,” is not all that persuasive. But, contrary to the evidence that most all critics of Peppermint Candy find such issues as “male subjectivity”/developmental state politics/etc. pertinent to the film, you seem to have it all figured out.

            • Sorry, but although you seem to imply that people should, I certainly don’t take it for granted that Kim So-young’s years of training and gaining a Ph.D from NYU “might have honed her skills in analysis and persuasive power a bit more” than my own.

              Having said that, I suspect we’d be having an entirely different conversation now if that’s what you had written originally. But no, instead of using more neutral terms, you chose to highlight the fact that I was a blogger and she a “paid pro”, and further implied that as the former I was either uniformed and/or arrogant for my criticism of her. Moreover, if “most all critics of Peppermint Candy find such issues as ‘male subjectivity’/developmental state politics/etc. pertinent to the film,” then heaven forbid that I suggest anything to the contrary.

              For someone claiming not to be concerned about policing the boundaries between blogging and academia, you seem to have a strange fixation with reminding me of my place in that continuum.

              Regardless, however ironic, uniformed and/or arrogant you find it, you seem to forget that I’m entitled to simply have an opinion of her article. But while it’s not beyond me to provide a more coherent critique of it, you hardly encourage me to invest the time and effort to provide one.

  2. I couldn’t even finish the film, Oasis from the same director is far superior, I don’t even understand how this one is considered a classic.
    A more fitting film on a particular korean period would be the “classic” Obaltan (also called Stray Bullet) on the after war period, darker and quite entertaining.
    Indie films Take Care Of My Cat and Flower Island are nice low key films but much more human than Peppermint Candy.
    Being interested in Korean societary issues the If You Were Me series (quite surprising considered Korea’s reluctance to criitisise itself) could interest you as well (there’s a segment that deals with korean womens’ body image although I don’t rate it too much either.
    But that’s just my opinion I just like to spread a bit of awareness on what I find is an interesting cinema scene in Korea

    • Glad to see I’m not the only one! It’s a pity that it’s too old for most people to remember why they liked it…if indeed people outside of the arts scene ever did?

      Thanks for those suggestions (and anon also). I have actually seen Take Care of My Cat, but about a year ago and while rather drunk and melancholy (long story), so much it of flew right by me. I’ve put it number 5 on my (already rather crowded) list then, so will probably get to it by about this time next month!

  3. Hi James,
    I’m no cultural studies student but I wonder if people of different cultures give different opinions on movies. For example, Korea is a very collectivistic culture (as is Japan), will this give them a higher level of ‘nunchi’ compared with people in individualistic cultures?

    I’m only assuming people with ‘high nunchi’ feel more involved in a movie/drama, therefore, understanding the flurry of emotions that are being conveyed better.

    But then again, you are a sociology professor, I guess you should have high ‘nunchi’ as well, haha. I apologize because my speculation is instinctive and without evidence. Would like to know your thoughts.

    • Kenneth,

      well of course people of different cultures are likely to give different opinions on movies. And similarly, as nunchi (눈치) is basically a way of inferring what people are really saying in a collectivist culture that frowns on speaking directly to one another, then of course individual Koreans are going to be better-honed nunchi skills then someone from a more individualistic culture too, and will pick up things that I will miss.

      There are definite limits though, and nunchi is not like some combination of secret handshakes, rites and incantations that (say) only eating kimchi and rice for breakfast for over 20 years provides. Personally, I consider it to be no more than one of a number of conceptual tools by which entirely too many Koreans like to create black and white distinctions between themselves and non-Koreans, and like those – foreigners don’t like kimchi, they’re all ready to have sex at the drop of a hat, they can’t speak Korean etc. etc. – ultimately unsustainable. And yet still they persist.

      Also after 10 years of watching Korean TV and movies also (not nearly enough though, granted), I’ve seen little evidence of a “flurry of emotions being conveyed” that fabled high-nunchi would enable me to see either (and particularly not in this movie). In fact, you could argue that living in a high-nunchi society would mean the exact opposite – that Korean people like much simpler things in their entertainment than they do in real life – as, indeed, it turns out to be the case for their dramas. Recall this next from Recentering Globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism (2002) by Koichi Iwabuchi for instance, which I talk more about here:

      Apart from the comparatively large budget and the sophistication of the production techniques, two structural factors make Japanese dramas attractive for their Taiwanese audiences. First, Japanese dramas are not soup operas; they always end within ten to twelve episodes (each episode being an hour long). By contrast, Taiwanese and American dramas seemingly never end. Most of my Taiwanese respondents commented that they felt such programs were unnecessarily protracted. Because Japanese dramas finish in a comparatively short time and their plots are usually less complicated than those of traditional soap operas, my respondents found it easier to focus on these dramas and enjoy the progress of their narratives. In addition, Japanese dramas, like movies, use orchestral music and theme songs repeatedly and effectively. The use of a theme song in a drama is particularly important. Each week, the theme functions not just as background music but as a constitutive part of the climatic scene. The theme song works in these instances to encourage the emotional involvement of the audience. It thus serves to evoke “romance,” helping the audience to enjoy a “romantic, beautiful love story,” as one of my interviewees put it.

      Granted, it’s technically about Japanese dramas, but it’s equally applicable here.

      Sorry if sound like I’m really going after you just for asking a simple question by the way(!) – I don’t mean to – but, well, I can’t lie: I think your image of nunchi is a bit misguided sorry, and especially that you think it’s a bigger difference between Koreans and non-Koreans than it really is. But please feel free to disagree with me!

  4. Hi James,

    Thanks for the reply! You don’t have to apologize because that’s exactly the type of answer I’m looking for! I can’t think of a way to disagree with that.

    There’s one part I don’t really understand, which is how nunchi relates to Korean’s frequently creating black and white distinctions.

    btw, should I refer to you with an honorific title? I feel calling you by your name is a bit rude…

    • Thanks, and you’re welcome.

      But I didn’t mean to imply that nunchi is directly related to Koreans’ proclivity for making black and white distinctions between themselves and non-Koreans sorry. To be more precise then, while non-Koreans supposedly lacking (and being unable to learn) nunchi is just one of many distinctions that are often mentioned, I’d argue that the desire to do so make such distinctions exists largely independently of it.

      I’m not actually a sociology professor by the way (sigh): just James is fine (and would be even if really was one anyway! {wistful sigh}).

  5. Uh, back on the movie itself. I’m struggling with the dislike/disinterest here. It’s by far my favourite Korean film, tbh.

    Wasn’t the whole point that his life went off the rails (badoom) when he lost his innocence in the Gwangju incident? His girlfriend was somehow associated with the girl he shot (he thought it was her…she’d just visited his camp to give him some peppermints) so he wanted to drive her and the memory of the whole thing away. And that’s also why he ended up with the waitress he obviously didn’t love (she fancies him the whole time but the first time he shows interest is to put up a show in front of the ex-girlfriend.) Losing his money…I don’t remember the specifics but it’s hardly a stretch considering his unhinged state. The police thing I’ll give you .. prolly just a device to hammer home the martial-law-sucked message.

  6. Just watched this movie last night…I didn’t think it was so bad. My biggest commentary is about the catalyst of his delve into negativity after his military service. James asked why we weren’t told the reasons behind his treatment of his first girlfriend, why he joined the police force and all the other junk that happened in the movie. I’d have to say it just stems from the killing of the student. It seems in his youth he was just a sensitive dreamer and a bumbling stooge in the military. He’s pretty soft until he kills the girl. Then he becomes a sadist pretty much and pushes everything away.

    There doesn’t seem to be a “good” reason to explain it, but is there rarely somethibg you can always pinpoint? If there is I think it had to be the self loathing projected onto everyone else. He hates dogs, yet he barks and growls at people. I think the guy just hates himself and once he loses it all he finally decides to take himself out.

    I like this idea of film reviews, gonna try and keep up and comment on them. It should furnish some good discussion. I am always looking for good films to watch as well.

    • Sorry for taking so long to reply Palapo & Joey.

      Palapo, I don’t personally think that he did associate his girlfriend with his accidental shooting of the high school girl in Kwangju, although I remain open to the possibility. But to be precise, he only very briefly thought that the girl was his girlfriend, when she was in the distance and he was hallucinating from the loss of blood, but of course he realized that she wasn’t after he she came close and he talked to her (and there was no way his girlfriend could physically have been there anyway).

      Regardless, his choices weren’t fixed after losing his innocence, and – had I not been seeing events in reverse – I could just have readily anticipated his attempting to atone for his mistake from then on. Moreover, although he’s eased into his role as a brutal police officer in 1987, in 1984 he’s clearly uncomfortable with it, so I disagree with you (Joey) that him becoming a sadist followed immediately (and naturally?) from what happened in Kwangju. Sure, there may not be one or two unequivocal reasons that explain the process, and I’m all for viewers not being spoon-fed everything and so being made to think and figure things out for themselves too. But you still need something to go on, yes?

      In hindsight, the treatment of his girlfriend primarily stems from him have tortured someone just a few hours previously, her telling him that he has “good hands” particularly poignant and ironic just after a prisoner was so frightened of him that he shat on them. I take it back that this isn’t really explained in the movie then, and it also adds weight to Palapo’s argument that he wanted to put all memory of the period behind him.

      But was that scene in the restaurant really for this new girlfriend/wife? I didn’t really understand it to be honest. And sadistic or not, do you put all memory of a former girlfriend behind you by marrying someone you don’t love instead?

      Finally Palapo, you probably don’t remember the specifics of him losing his money because…they’re never actually explained. Again, we’re left to fill in the gaps on our own. Personally, I think the jump from (moderately) successful businessperson in 1994 to penniless and suicidal in 1999 is siimply too abrupt.

  7. Korean cinema is definitely worth watching. You indicate that you’re not very familiar with it, so I decided to list a few movies I’ve liked.

    This Charming Girl and My Dear Enemy are both by the same director. The former is to Korean hyper-melodramas what the anti-Christ is to Jesus, and the latter has an understated naturalism similiar to This Charming Girl, and a pleasantly easygoing atmosphere. Ad Lib Night, also by the same director, is worth checking out as well.

    A Tale of Two Sisters is a peculiar horror movie because it’s actually more sad than it is scary. It’s more of a psychological drama with incidental horror elements. A very, very intelligent and poignant story. It’s one of more widely seen Korean movies (258 external reviews on IMDB), and was unfortunately subjected to an awful Hollywood remake.

    A Light Sleep is apparently completely obscure. Nobody has reviewed it (in English, anyway), most Google hits point to torrent sites, and it’s not even on IMDB. It’s a story about an insomniac teenage girl who is trying to take care of her younger sister after their parents died, and is told in chronologically disjointed sequences loosely arranged into some sort of chapters. It’s a bit odd, but I like it very much.

    On the lighter end of the spectrum there is Someone Special, a very amusing quasi-parody of Korean romantic comedies that is nevertheless a better romantic comedy than the ones it makes fun of. Going by the Book, with the same writer and lead actor as Someone Special, is great as well.

    I would love to say that M is simply underrated, but I think it’s something that most people just didn’t like. It’s very unconventional, and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. If Wong Kar-wai and David Lynch made a Korean romantic comedy together, and somebody watched it and had a dream about it, the result might resemble M.

    • Thanks very much for those suggestions, and with your description “[it] is to Korean hyper-melodramas what the anti-Christ is to Jesus,” you’ve completely sold me on This Charming Girl in particular!

  8. after watching this movie, I just thought it was anti-military. That it showed how screwed up a life could become from doing the mandatory military service required of Korean males.

    But I found the director’s other movie, Green Fish (초록 물고기), to be much better. It shows us how someone falls into the mafia life. It really kept my attention.

    I like these movies (and 고양이를 부탁해) because they show real Korean streets, and Korean people. Not Gangnam, and rich people, which seem whitewash real Korea.

    Also watch, this one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring,_Summer,_Fall,_Winter…_and_Spring

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Fish

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Take_care_of_my_cat

    Andrew.

  9. I didn’t like this one either.

    Individual sequences were very compelling but when taken as a whole…what was the point of it all? Many sequences seem like they could belong to other movies entirely. There seemed to be little if anything that really linked most scenes together other than common characters or surroundings. It made it hard to sympathize with the main character.

    If the goal is for the viewer to fill in the blanks then I’m afraid, what is shown in the film doesn’t give much if any hints that would make trying to fill in the blanks an even remotely interesting endeavor.

  10. Argh, my lengthy comment last night was lost here, and I’m years late, so I’ll just say: this “review” is… well, I’ll try put it in a way that’ll make immediate sense to you. Those people who criticize you by saying you’re “reading too much into” ads, or “obsessed” with teen sex in Korea? This post is the film crit intellectual equivalent of that. I believe it’s wrongheaded and reveals more about your own intellectual and aesthetic predilections and limitations than it does about the film. It is an opinion, but not an informed or creditable one, and I daresay it’s a bit embarrassing to read it on the website of a friend. Certainly, it doesn’t stand as respectable criticism or review.

    And by the way, the standard for respectable criticism and review is (a) apparent fluency in the language of the art form, and (b) rhetorical persuasiveness in making arguments regarding a given piece of art. In other words, if you don’t know anything about film, and can’t make a persuasive, convincing argument, then a mere reaction or opinion doesn’t really pass muster as a “Review” or “Criticism.”

    As a comparative, I highly recommend this book as an example of what both fluency and effective rhetoric deployed together look like:

    (You can see my review quoted among the blurbs; I hadn’t known it was, but there you go!)

    Frankly, I can’t help but agree with the comment by anon: this review is kind of sadly inadequate to the point where it really just suggests maybe film criticism isn’t your thing, James… and perhaps you realized that and that’s why you’ve stopped doing film crits here?

    Still, because of the respect I have for Lee Chang-Dong, and for this film specifically, I would like to respond to your ostensible criticisms.

    Centrally, your complaint seems to be that the film is (1) bleak and (2) opaque.

    First, the bleakness: It’s about the long-term, pervasive, inescapable corruption of the dictatorships that extends into the present day in South Korea, at the time the film was released, and the ideological and psychological flashpoint role of the Kwangju Massacre in realizing that previously unrecognized corruptive influence–It’s about the soul-destroying influence of being complicit with grave human evil, and the ubiquity of that complicity, and its hidden perpetuation into the “bright shiny” new millennium. It’s an indictment of a society deep in denial about its own psychosocial scars and traumas, even when the sickness they engender is plain as day. It’s a film about the institutional and historical nature of social and political evil.

    Of course it’s bleak. Complaining about that is like arguing movie about a serial killer is so dark, or popping a porn into your DVD player and being taken aback that it has no plot and a lot of skin. I mean, what did you expect, a song-and-dance show?

    As for its opacity: for someone fluent in the language of film, complaints that boil down to, “Things aren’t all spelled out for me” or “My K-drama watching wife fell asleep,” are really just a case of the critic voicing a certain kind of (very familiar) intellectual and imaginative laziness. This is a recurrent complaint of yours in the film reviews you posted: the pacing is slow, the knots are not all tied off neatly, there’s stuff left out and the viewer is expected to sort of figure things out. There is a place for that kind of criticism, but your critiques suggest that for you, it’s more just the case that you’ve been conditioned by mainstream popcorn films to expect everything spelled out for you, and to expect a Hollywood pace. That is,it suggests a basic lack of fluency in the language of cinema… at least, for anything more complex than (or even just different from) mainstream, Hollywood fare. Which, like American newspapers, are written to a grade schooler level of comprehension.

    Which is to say: Hollywood as taught us that there is only really one way to tell a story, and that that way is essentially the 1950s comic book method of handholding the audience all the way along. But James, that isn’t the only way to tell a story. It isn’t even the *best* way to tell a story. The sad thing is that your comments above betray the fact you’ve bought into that assumption, and don’t even realize it. That’s what makes it embarrassing to read this on the blog of a person I consider a friend.

    Your rejection of what many critics have to say (in this and other reviews) without really anything but a sort of un-thought-out, gut reaction to watching a film a couple of times, sort of sounds like the non-specialist mocking the specialist for using “arcane” language, just because he doesn’t know that language. Yes, I’m sort of thinking of Tea Partiers who mock respected and creditable climate scientists as “frauds.” Everyone thinks he or she knows a lot about music, until you sit them down and ask them to explain a piece of music and how it works–especially anything more challenging than candyfloss pop. Then, suddenly, 99% of people start talking about everything BUT the music. (I’m serious: your complaints about Lee’s film sound to me approximately as crass and ill-considered as someone complaining that there’s no electric guitars or back dancers in a staging of Wagner’s Tannhauser, or Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin. It’s not a moral crime to be tin-eared and ignorant of art, but it is embarrassing when one advertises it and doesn’t realize it.) It’s the same with film: most people are just cinematically illiterate, and most films take that into account, and basically tell their stories in the cinematic equivalent of all caps in primary colors. Which is what it is: I’m sure Lee is aware of the, er, low standards for Korean audiences, and their execrable collective tastes. Picasso made his art knowing a lot of people would say, “That doesn’t look like a person!” and I imagine Lee has the same awareness, realizes his film isn’t for everyone, and focuses on his chosen audience. Which is fine: we need films for people who DO want to be challenged. A world where all films, music, and books cater only to the lowest common denominator would be a world of incredible poverty… and, you can be sure, we would have no thoughtful examinations of the nature of evil, of corruption, and so on. (Not beyond often-shallow comic-book melodramas on the subject.)

    I would recommend, as a kind of reality check, the film “Le Fils” by the Dardennes Brothers. Pretty much anyone I know who’s fluent in film thinks these guys are incredible, and this film is challenging (not James Joyce difficult, but it refuses to hold your hand much, and insists you need to try figure things out, so that when you do get what’s going on, it really hits you hard); I can say it is very powerful and moving, but if I didn’t know enough about film, and hadn’t been patient, imaginative, and attentive all the way through–in a way no Hollywood film has ever demanded of me–I probably wouldn’t understand why someone would say that.

    Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t personal, and I’m not mad that you didn’t like the film, and I’m not trying to insult you. I actually know pretty well where your reactions are coming from: I have to admit that in my time in Korea, partly because of the cinemas available to me near my home (CGV caters ONLY to the lowest common denominator, outside Seoul), and partly because I was busy with other things, I got lazy in my film viewing. Earlier this year, when my (filmmaker) wife started working her way through those films that are held in general high esteem in the world of global cinema, I was kind of bewildered for some of the same reasons you express: I struggled with different pacing, and with a certain (much higher) expectation of viewer involvement in figuring out what was going on, and why. Then, at some point, I realized: this was laziness on my part, not something wrong with the films, and the realization allowed me to enjoy some pretty powerful, profound, films that transcend mere “entertainment” to achieve actual artistic achievement.

    What I’m saying is, there’s movies that are made to make money, and they’re in one language, and there’s movies made to say something about the world that cannot be said in any other way, and those films are made in a wholly different cinematic language. You’re complaining that the film you watched is written in the latter language, and why couldn’t it be written in the former. The reason is (very roughly): because the former language doesn’t have words to say what the latter language is capable of saying.

    Now, that’s not to say I don’t have an issue with the pervasive lack of agency in Korean narratives–the fact that character after character meets a horrible, depressing fate and seems powerless to do anything about it. I think it’s the worst feature of Korean film and fiction alike. But I think this “criticism” above is very a poor show.

    Meanwhile, I am a bit shocked that you decided to review the films you did. I was kind of expecting you might have, you know, reviewed films more pertinent to the subject of this website. 500 Pounds Beauty is brainrot, but brainrot is immensely popular in Korea, and it’s brainrot that is pertinent to your blog’s main preoccupations–gender, sexuality, and pop-culture media (especially advertising). Similarly, there was a K-pop horror movie a few years ago, which I assumed you’d review here, but I don’t see it on your list. I think the films that you might get more mileage out of on this site are those that are more commercial and popular in the Korean mainstream, and which follow the American commercial formulae to which you seem so strongly attached anyway. You might try those sorts of films… and you might enjoy them more, as well.

    Again: I don’t mean to insult you. But this was too much for me not to say something. (I wrote a very long comment last night, which was perhaps less charitable and kind, but it got lost. I hope so, as I don’t mean to attack you. Everyone comes to a work of art with their own limits. But I’m telling you: you did not get the film, and I believe–and could argue at much greater length–that it’s not the film’s fault.)

    By the way: I’m not sure what’s up with your template, but for longer comments, the comment text box keeps resizing itself as I type. It’s infuriating, and probably is part of why my comment last night was a bit harsher than it otherwise would be. Not sure what’s up with that. I’m viewing your site on Mac OS X (Mountain Lion), for what it’s worth. A data point.

    Hope you’re well…

    • Gord,

      By eerie coincidence, if you hadn’t written your comment then now I would be working on my tenth movie review instead. And, as I planned to say in my introduction, it is surely telling that it’s taken me four years to get to that number. Telling that “maybe film criticism isn’t [my] thing” though? Well, we’ll get on to that. What I *was* going to write was that, for various reasons, my interest in Korean movies never really materialized, which in hindsight was surely reflected in my reviews. But also that if I’d chosen films more appropriate to the theme(s) of this blog, as indeed you suggest I should have, then perhaps that may well have sparked a genuine interest and appreciation years ago, making the review/opinions more interesting for readers accordingly. So, I’d already decided to make a fresh start (this is a blog about popular culture after all!), and accordingly I deliberately chose and was all set to write about Crazy Waiting, about girlfriends’ experiences while their boyfriends are doing their military service. Also, having learned from my experiences writing for Busan Haps, crucially I was going to pledge to keep to a strict word limit of 800 words in future.

      Your comment then, found me already quite receptive to criticism, and I take many of your points to heart. That said, I find just as many quite literally misplaced.

      First, because when I first wrote this comment last night, I started by saying how strange if felt to be repeatedly told about my utter, utter inadequacies as a reviewer in a post where acknowledging precisely that is actually a central theme of what I wrote. But in hindsight, I don’t write about divisions between blogging and academia anywhere else, so this is the appropriate place to voice your disagreements. Also, related, I was going to write that I found your reaction disproportionate, but again in hindsight perhaps I was probably more reacting myself to your equating my review/opinion with what my Tumblr trolls wrote about me, which I thought was a very poor choice of analogy on your part.

      Don’t get me wrong though — I’m not really insulted by that, or anything else you wrote. As I hope you won’t be when I say that your comment seems at least partially – and understandably – a gut reaction to someone so strongly disagreeing with a movie and director you greatly respect (especially as you admit your lost comment was much harsher).

      (Even now, I’m still a bit taken aback at how “anon” flipped when I gave him or her the ‘wrong’ opinion of that Korea Journal article.)

      Next, your comment is misplaced because please realize you’re really arguing with a corpse here. This post is four years old – an age as far as I’m concerned. Again, that doesn’t mean that it’s now beyond the fray, and indeed what to do about old posts that no longer represent our views is something we both have to deal with. So, just so you’re aware, let me say that not only would I write this post completely differently today, but my views on movies have changed a great deal too, not least due to more knowledgeable people such as yourself. Indeed, as it turns out, I actually completely agree with the vast bulk of your comment (unfortunately, your points about bleakness and opacity, albeit appreciated, turn out to be unnecessary!), especially on the merits of movies where the audience is not spoon-fed everything, and/or those specifically aimed at a much more sophisticated audience than I. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have come to like opaque movies of course (nor ones where the central characters lack agency for that matter), but I can — and, in some of my later reviews, do — recognize their quality, despite my personal tastes.

      However, when you write that my post “doesn’t stand as respectable criticism or review,” by the standards you set – “(a) apparent fluency in the language of the art form, and (b) rhetorical persuasiveness in making arguments regarding a given piece of art” – you really do seem to forget that 1) it’s a beginner’s post so to speak, as discussed, and so, well, what did you expect; 2) your second condition is about as subjective as they come; and, crucially, 3) that it was never intended to fulfill your first condition. Because then and now, I see a HUGE distinction between (for want of a better phrase) the language of reviews meant for ordinary people, and that of those by and for film academics, which I think you don’t. And to me, you are only talking about the latter.

      That’s not to say my writing and arguments here are necessarily acceptable even by an ordinary reviewer’s standards (you make your opinion clear!). Nevertheless, I will be so bold as to suggest that, four years later, I’m getting there. Also, bold enough to say that in contrast, I find film studies as a whole one of the densest, one of the most deliberately abstruse, and, ironically for the medium, one of the most verbose and jargon-filled disciplines out there. And, before you scoff at that, please do consider something important:

      That I’m not stupid.

      Also, that I’m relatively well-read and educated. Hence, with some obvious exceptions, that I need hardly mention here, I can *generally* get the gist of lower-level academic works written about many arts and humanities subjects. Obviously the more specialized, the more I struggle, and need primers and frequent references to easier works. And some works will always be completely beyond me.

      In two decades of being a geek however, two subjects in particular continue to elude my understanding, although not for want of trying: postmodernism and film studies. Despite the impression you gained of me from earlier comments though, I don’t revel in this fact. Nor can I fail to see that sometimes my dislike of “difficult” films, and/or misunderstanding of what has been written about them, is no-one’s fault but my own. But please, do respect me enough not to just dismiss me as a plebian when I say that maybe, just maybe, my consistent difficulties in understanding these two disciplines may be because either they’re not all that coherent in the first place (postmodernism), and/or that their practitioners are simply terrible at communicating their ideas (film studies). Not for nothing do ordinary film reviewers, writing for an interested, educated, and paying public, largely avoid the language that I feel you hold in entirely too highly a regard – even if they have extensive backgrounds in film studies themselves.

      In closing, I *will* check out that book you recommended. And, in turn, I invite you to elaborate on what you wrote in your paragraph on bleakness (“First, the bleakness: It’s about the long-term, pervasive, inescapable corruption…”). Because although, in fairness, your paragraph wasn’t really intended to give specific examples of the themes you describe, in the absence of those examples to me it is representative of what the Korea Journal writer and many other film academics are guilty of. Namely, that when they tell me what a movie is supposedly about, but I can’t see any evidence of what they say myself, and what’s more they themselves don’t provide any either, then defenders’ appeals to their authority just don’t cut it, giving me no choice but to read such assertions as pure fiction, and/or instances of where narratives *about* movies have overpowered the discussions of them (I was quite serious when I likened such cases to medieval astronomers’ concepts of the heavens in an earlier comment; specifically, the circles within circles of Ptolemy!). But if you do provide examples yourself though? Then who knows? I may suddenly — finally — see things I didn’t, and even come to agree with you!

      • p.s. Forgot to say thanks for pointing out the text box resizing issue — I noticed it myself, but didn’t know if it was just on my computer. Now that I know it’s not though, it’s quite a relief(!), and I’ve contacted support about it. They’ll probably get back to me after the weekend.

        • Aaaand,

          Ha, they seem to have fixed the comment box resizing issue, but simply by locking it at a small size. If you could resize it to be bigger, it might be of use to those writing comments longer than a few sentences. :)

      • Ha, eerie coincidence. Yes, I think Crazy Waiting is probably closer to the themes of this blog. The “Wet Dreams” films too — 몽정기 1 and 2, IIRC.

        (BTW I saw the English title Crazy for Wait, equally incoherent. One of us should offer a film English-titling service)

        I’m glad that some of my comments seemed fair and pertinent, and were of use to you. I’ll try respond to your objections here, as fairly as I can:

        First, because when I first wrote this comment last night, I started by saying how strange if felt to be repeatedly told about my utter, utter inadequacies as a reviewer in a post where acknowledging precisely that is actually a central theme of what I wrote.

        Well, yes, but this is the thing: I don’t tend to use my blog as a platform to dismiss things that I feel I’m not really equipped to talk about.

        For example: I have long found the “chic” these days, online, of women dressing in male drag kind of, I don’t know… obnoxious. I have some sense of where it comes from–the current interest in gender-bending, the history of same that stretches back from Janelle Monae back to Marlene Dietrich–but I have reservations about the kind of conception of feminism and gender equality we have now, which I feel is specifically mirror by this pop culture trend.

        But I’m not, you know, particularly knowledgeable about it. I am not really versed in why people celebrate this. I stand a very good chance of inserting my foot into my mouth should I write about it. And while there perhaps shouldn’t be shame in doing so, I do think that at the very least, one has a responsibility to educate oneself, and to try present opinions that are informed by understanding, research… essentially, by hard intellectual work. An opinion that is backed up by gut instinct, or plain bewilderment, isn’t so much an opinion as it is a naïve reaction.

        (I mean naïve here as unschooled: the way we have naïve physics wired into our heads, and naïve sociology, and so on. Naïve psychology allows us to understand those who behave like us: when we run into someone who is schizophrenic, or a genius, or who is suffering PTSD, though, naïve psychology just kind of produces a verdict like, “Weird!” and a cultural explanation pops up: madness or demonic possession or some spiritual failing.)

        I don’t think the analogy with your Tumblr trolls is necessarily off, though. I mean, look: your Tumblr trolls are, I’m sure, shitheads. They don’t put energy into thinking, carefully reading, or trying to understand what you’re saying, or why you’re saying it, on this site. They pick a few immediately noticeable images and phrases, and extrapolate something negative from that, in what appears to you and me like laziness, and then spew that onto the internet in an attempt to ruin your reputation.

        The parallels, for me, are significant, not easily dismissed. I am NOT calling you a shithead, mind, but your post doesn’t suggest to me that you put significant energy into thinking, carefully reading, or trying to understand “Peppermint Candy.” (And I’m not talking about reading film critics on the subject: more about that below.) You grabbed a few things that didn’t sit well with you, confused you, or annoyed you, and held them up as evidence that the movie isn’t worth watching. (In the end, you recommend people away from it, which, as I say, to me reads as extrapolating negative from a very superficial reaction, and then throwing that into the public ring.) This probably provoked a strong reaction from me for two reasons:

        1. It’s pretty uncharacteristic of you. You usually think about things before posting them. I’m usually able to agree or disagree with interpretations. Here, there was precious little to agree or disagree with.

        2. You dismissed what is generally agreed among Korean film people to be one of the great Korean political/historical films. Which is to say: while the morass of popcorn films dominates, and whir Lee Chang-Dong *could* cash in on that, he went to the trouble to make a more complex, and a much more dangerous film. He dares to indict the present day status quo (at the time of release). As far as I can tell you dismiss his film because it’s bleak and because it requires more thinking to understand than a popcorn film. It’s a woefully inadequate response to a film that qualifies itself as “art,” as woefully inadequate as the “too many notes” schtick from Emperor Leopold in the film Amadeus.

        And that second point is important to me. Knowing what I know about the Korean film industry, I can say it’s a miracle that art films get made at all, let alone art films with any kind of political consciousness. An art film that dares to indict a right wing that is so closely intertwined with corporate power and corporate funds, that’s pretty much incredible. But even setting that aside, the market forces in Korea, in Korean cinema and entertainment specifically, make the fact that this film got made something of a triumph, and something of a miracle. In my own first-hand experience (which I now have) I know precisely how hard it is to make a film at all… and can only imagine how hard it is to construct a film as profound and powerful, and as against the formulaic grain, as this one.

        (It’s like Branford Marsalis said: there’s a place for music you dance to with your body, of course. But we ought to have a place in our society for music you dance to with your mind, too. In Korea, there really are massive forces acting for the pure commodification of all creativity: K-pop only succeeds when it steamrolls all other music, K-drama succeeds when it steamrolls the TV drama of other societies (as many are complaining all over Asia), and so on. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the degree to which the most commercialized form of Korean pop music, and of Korean films, dominates how both Koreans and non-Koreans see Korean music and Korean cinema, speaks the power of those commodifying forces. It’s a universal problem–Hollywood and American pop music are similar–but in Korea, for various reasons I won’t get into, this is more extreme and more dire.)

        So when I see someone say, “Meh, I don’t recommend it,” and then say so on flimsy grounds, it maddens me: not because I like the film and think everyone should, or because I think Thumper’s mom is right: I think people should voice criticisms if they have them… but they ought to be actual criticisms, informed and credible and so on. (And when flimsy, I think criticisms should be shot to pieces mercilessly.) I think so as much because, with all the forces that are working against *good* films in Korea, films that are worthy of a global audience — films that transcend the formulaic repetitions of most Korean cinema — I am profoundly discomfited by any aid to those forces that help marginalize art films.

        Because, you see, there’s an issue of responsibility. Your blog actually is seen by a lot of people as authoritative. You use an authoritative voice here, you adopt a largely academic stance. (My blog doesn’t, I don’t think. I don’t cite references or statistics, I don’t present myself as having authoritative knowledge, or staking a claim to much. Maybe Korean SF. That’s about it.) I know you present your reaction as unschooled, and as an opinion, but even so: you come out recommending people not to watch the film. That, to me, doesn’t really represent the kind of humility I expect from someone who admits he doesn’t get something. You say that your post is a “beginner’s post” and that you “never intended to” fulfill the criteria of respectable criticism: well, yes, which is my problem with the post. If you’re going to go and tell people either to watch or avoid a film, don’t you think you ought to make a creditable argument?

        A reaction–an intellectually coherent reaction, by someone who self-awarely understands when the failing is perhaps his own–would not end with a recommendation to avoid an artwork. Indeed, I almost never post on visual art for this reason. When I encounter works of art I don’t understand, I usually try approach them through questions. Why is the image so disjointed? Why is the feminine associated with the supernatural? Why do none of these figures have faces? Why is the color palette so dominated by darker tones? Not: “Why isn’t this immediately comprehensible for me? Why is it so bleak? Meh, avoid this.” I mean, this is a (somewhat) tough film, sure: but it’s a film that is made very honestly, with a great deal of hard work, and it says something that is actually very nuanced, complex, and important for understanding South Korean society today. I think it’s an important film. Tos see it dismissed bothers me, yes.

        But even if you’d bashed a film director I don’t particularly like–say, Kim Ki-duk–in such a shallow way, I probably would have reacted the same way. Lazy criticism bothers me always.It’s just that apparently lazy, unengaged criticism of something that’s actually an astonishing artwork is a kind of crassness I abhor.

        And before you take that word “lazy” the wrong way: “laziness” and “stupidity” are not really useful concepts when applied to people in an essential sense. (Even with the people we know who are kind of stupid, calling them stupid isn’t useful, right?) Laziness and stupidity as qualities of statements, on the other hand, are useful concepts. If I say something stupid, or of I present an essentially lazy argument, I would expect and hope to be called on it. Telling me that I’ve written something lazy may not be easy to hear, but it’s a (potentially) useful assessment of my work. To call my argument “stupid” can be useful, if both impolitic and perhaps harsh.

        I don’t believe I called you stupid. I don’t believe you are stupid in any fundamental way. I think this post looks pretty stupid, though. That’s fine: I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take long for you to find “stupid”-looking posts on my blog, too, especially from four years ago. I am functionally stupid about a lot of things: put a calculus equation in front of me, and you’ll see. Six or seven years ago, I was functionally stupid enough (ie. ignorant enough to be stupid enough) to barge into a discussion of sexual violence with a comment that wasn’t quite “What was she wearing,” but something like, “But surely dressing immodestly and getting drunk in a bad part of town is a bad idea!” (Sure, but most women know that, including most women who have been assaulted. I realize how stupid the comment was now, but then, I was ham-headed enough not to realize how to make my point, and how off my point was.)

        So: I suppose what I’m saying is, we ought to be able to tell a smart person, “Hey, you’re behaving stupidly here…” (in a piece of writing, at a party), without them retaliating with, “I’m not stupid!” We also ought to be able to take that from other smart people: “Hey, you’re behaving stupidly!” should make us pause, think, “Aw, crap, am I?” In other words, “I’m not stupid…” seems sort of unfair, though I suppose I can also read it as somewhat defensiveness. I am sorry my comment made you feel I was implying you’re stupid. Were you stupid, I wouldn’t have bothered to come poke around your site. You do, however, say stupid things on occasion. So do I. We learn by having this pointed out to us… certainly, I have learned that way.

        All that said, this isn’t really about divisions between blogging and academia. I don’t think that art films are just for academics. I don’t think that academics necessarily are the best people to listen to about art films, either. The academic humanities are in a weird position now, in that a almost everyone outside their fields is convinced they’re useless… but academics are doing their level best to maintain that impression. Instead of fighting to display and expand their apparent (and practical) relevance to everyone else, to increase clarity and popularity, they are retreating into great obscurity, greater unnecessary difficulty in their writing, and still-greater irrelevance. Academics who write about film are often just as much concerned with staking a claim as being good at being an academic writing about film as they are trying to say something about the film. There are insights, but they’re often muddled by awful writing, obscurantist language, and so on. This is why postmodernist philosophy/criticism and film crit (which involves a lot of PoMo) presents such problems. I’m convinced that there’s nothing really new in PoMo: it’s just a lot of older insights that are blown up past usefulness, and recast as evidence in a kind of misconceived branch of the culture wars, by people who don’t well understand science, or the people they’re arguing with (the cultural conservative wing).

        That said, I think Anon’s reaction was probably fueled more by the woeful inadequacy of your original post than a truly serious concern about the division between bloggers and academics. If you’d made serious arguments, then probably there would have been discussion of those arguments. But you didn’t: you seemed basically to say, “I’m out of my depth, and half-realize it, but I’m still going to bash this film and recommend against it.”

        On arguing with corpses: yeah, the whole blogosphere has this problem. I’m thinking about amending my template to add a note: “This post is X months/years old” for this reason. That said, check out the comments on our Youtube video. People seem not to read carefully enough to notice the first words in the video’s description, “This is a parody…” I’m willing to bet people show up not realizing this post is old.

        Anyway, it’s salutary that you have gotten more into film, and have different views now. You’ve indicated you’re going to delve into this film again. I think the best way to move forward is questions. Don’t go read the critics. Spend time with the film. Watch it multiple times. Ask yourself questions about it. You may find some basic litcrit books useful–those written in sensible language but even more useful, I suspect, would be books on filmmaking from a practical perspective.

        The language of cinema–art films especially–is one of implication, so when you complain of film critics speaking in vague swathes of interpretation, well: they’re trying to enunciate the implied, substructural network of meanings that accumulates within the film. It’s not the kind of thing where there’s an interpretive key that will unlock the secrets of the movie, because movies are not communications in a secret code: the code is open to all, it’s just non-linguistic. It is communicated in resonances, echoes, repetitions, in color and mood, in characters’ expressions and in imagery, in snippets of dialog. There’s a certain sensitization that’s necessary, which is to say: you may find that watching a whole bunch of films hailed as “great cinema” for a month might change *you* enough that when you watch Peppermint Candy again, you’re seeing things that previously were simply invisible to you.

        Because, for me, it’s not that “plebeians” are stupid: it’s that most people–and,at times, that includes me–experience a pretty powerful degree of desensitization when they are exposed to media of the more commercial kind. Commercial media services the lowest common denominator, which is to say, it trains us to read lazily and superficially. If all I read was Dan Brown and Tom Clancy novels for a decade, I would struggle with modernist poetry. If all I ever watched was vampire romance movies, I too would find Peppermint Candy pointlessly bleak and opaque. To become a great audience member for anything–books, paintings, films, pieces of music–takes not just work and struggle, but also a degree of self-transformation… part of which involves desensitization.

        Also, another thing: you speak as if my reading of “Peppermint Candy” might “change your mind” if I can demonstrate my point with evidence. I think you’re kind of coming at it from the wrong angle. Sufficiently complex works of art invite multiple readings. They’re “quasi-encyclopedic” (as Edward Said put it) and so a vast range of readings is possible. The more masterful and complex the text, the more range the possible readings. That is to say: even readings that are “off” can be interesting and instructive. I don’t know if you’ve watched the Kubrick film “The Shining” but I think the recent documentary “Room 237″ is instructive. Pretty much all the interpretations in that film start out interesting, and go off the rails at some point. I don’t find any of the readings in the latter documentary creditable… but they are all fascinating and all supported by the film in great detail. “Room 237″ is, in a way, a kind of essay on the magic of interpretation (especially of an obsessive kind), as well as ultimately the misguidedness of evidence-based liberalized interpretation of the kind you seem to be asking me for.

        An effective reading of a film clicks with a sense of rightness, a feeling of, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or of seeing things one didn’t previously see. It is a bit like archaeology, in that you’re assembling meaning out of scattered bones. Films attain complexity when the bones fit together well, while inviting multiple interpretations of what theta assemblage may mean. (After all, audiences are diverse, and each individual will bring a different set of experiences and a different worldview to the cinema.) So ultimately, it’s about the subjectivity of understanding, as much as anything. I tend toward trying to figure out what the director is arguing, but doubtless I will focus on different things from what you will: I imagine you will tend toward thinking about the role of gender in Lee’s exploration of corruption and social destruction, whereas I would focus on the processes of violence and subterranean mechanics of political power, because our intellectual interests differ, and probably also because of our differing temperaments. I’m gloomier and more misanthropic than you, I believe!)

        By the way, you use Ptolemy as a sort of example of the failings of medieval astronomy, but wrongheadedly, I think. Ptolemaic astronomy had a wide following, yes, for doctrinal reasons–the idea of the Earth at the center of all things was enforced by the church, and before that by mainstream piety among the Greeks–but it also had a wide following because, even if it was in factual error, barring the understanding that the Earth was in motion, it really was the best (or one of the best) of all possible interpretations of what was seen happening in the skies. Which is to say, Ptolemy was looking into the sky, and seeing bizarre movements, and did the best he could to figure out the connections between them and himself as viewer. He paid very, very close attention, and unfortunately his blind spots (a lack of recognition of heliocentrism) required some complex cosmology and mathematics to make sense of things… but at least he didn’t just shrug and say, “Meh, the stars and planets are all just moving around and it makes no freakin’ sense. I don’t recommend looking at the stars.”

        The parallel is unfair to Ptolemy because he actually made the simplest *possible* model he could to explain what he say. The parallel is unfair to film critics because film interpretation, unlike science, is not about creating a definitive reading of a film, but about constructing an engaging, compelling, and creditable one.

        In any case for the moment, I’m a bit too busy to go and watch “Peppermint Candy” again. I’m sure I will get to the film someday, but right now I’m in the thick of writing a novel, revising some short stories, and working on screenplays, as well as making music and reading and trying to get back into shape. I simply don’t have time to sit down and write a reading of this movie, especially of the kind you suggest. That would take many more hours than the one I’ve spent writing this. But I will direct you to my multipart reading of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. The reading I present in my academic paper on the film (published in Arena Journal) is (I like to think) very accessible. It focuses on the politics: specifically the connections between eco-activism, the left-right divide in Korea, and “Park Chung Hee Syndrome.” (The blog post series that begins here is a poor summation: if you can’t access the Arena journal PDF through a library database, I could ask around, or send you my proofreading copy, which has only minor errors.)

        I would hope that the Arena piece serves as a creditable model for the kind of reading I’m arguing for, for now, since I really just don’t have time to go rewatch a film I’ve seen several times already, and then spend hours and hours writing about. (The paper on The Host took a month off-and-on to write–not a solid month, I was doing other things, but a month of writing, and plenty of time before that for research–and I have too much else to do right now, especially in the area of doing my own part to hopefully contributing more interesting, non-formulaic film to the repertory of Korean cinema, in collaborating with my filmmaking wife, as well as writing books… the whole reason I’ve backed off blogging and following blogs.)

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