Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Korean peppermint

In the spring of 1999 in the South Korean countryside, a suited man disturbs the 20-year picnic reunion of his own high school by dancing and singing erratically before climbing onto a bridge and into the path of a train. Arms spread wide, he screams "I'm going back!" as the train careens towards him.

Three days previously, the protagonist Yongho has lost all his money, is heavily in debt and has been left by his wife. He's purchased a gun and he intends to kill himself just before he learns that his first love Sunim is lying dying in hospital. South Korea is in economic crisis: the currency has devalued, unemployment is soaring and bankruptcies are rife.

In 1994, Yongho is juggling a small business, an unhappy marriage and an affair with one of his employees. In a restaurant he runs into a man who turns out to have been his torture victim in 1987 when he was a policeman extracting confessions from government dissidents. South Korea in the 80s was a turbulent time as leader General Chun Doo Hwan kept the country in an iron-fisted state of martial law.

Jumping back to 1984, Yongho is a rookie cop traumatised by the torture methods of his colleagues and by his first experience of brutally forcing a confession out of a suspect. And in 1980, we discover that as a solider called upon to surpress a civil disturbance, he accidentally kills an innocent young bystander. The backdrop is the Kwangju Massacre during which a clash between government troops and student pro-democracy demonstrators resulted in 200 dead.

The final scene of Yongho's life is actually the beginning when in 1979 the high school students are gathered at the same tranquil picnic location. Yongho is full of hope with the possibilities of his future and his burgeoning love for Sunim.

We saw the Korean movie Peppermint Candy at the Renoir on Saturday as part of the Firecracker season of Asian films. We found it to be as much a tale of South Korea's turbulent history as a tale of a man's personal disintegration. Compellingly told and broodily acted. Just wonderful.

Afterwards, we ate Korean food at one of my favourite restaurants Bi Won, a spectacular, tiny cafe-restaurant on Coptic Street behind the British Museum. We ate fiery kimchi (pickled cabbage); vermicelli fried with beef, chillis and spring onions in a black bean sauce; and spicy noodle soup. Plus the Korean OB beer.

Sunday was spent doing one of my most dreaded activities: shopping. I try and do this as little as possible, but as the weather is finally turning, I desperately needed some jumpers and wool skirts. Luckily I found everything I needed along Regent and Oxford Streets and now don't have to do this again until next Spring (hopefully)!

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