On a sunny day by a whispering river a group of friends, all middle-aged, are having a reunion, celebrating twenty years since they last had an outing together, back in college. Toward them staggers a disheveled man in a business suit, and they recognize him as their old friend Yong-Ho. He joins them in their picnic, but seems somehow different, transformed by loss and disappointment suffered during the years following his college days. He disgraces himself by doing a grotesque karaoke performance before running off to flail in the water. He then gravely, resolutely, wanders over to stand on the nearby train tracks. As one friend pleads with him to come down, the rest of them sing merrily, oblivious to what is about to happen. And then a beam of light rushes forth from the tunnel and it is all over.
And so we begin our journey backwards through time, through Yong-Ho’s life, starting with the moment of his death. It is three days earlier, and he is destitute and ruined, squatting in a leaky shack. He has saved up enough money to buy a gun, and plans to use it on himself. Before he can do this, he is approached by the husband of Sun-Im, his first love, whom he met on that picnic by the river twenty years ago. Sun-Im is dying, the husband tells him, and would like to see him one last time. He goes along, and the woman is in a coma, unable to speak to him. And so he leaves her side, distressed and embittered, and the audience is taken out of the narrative once again, further back in time, to five years earlier, and then twelve years earlier, and then fifteen, etc…
We get to know the troubled protagonist intimately, how beastly he behaves towards the doting Hong-Ja, the woman he ended up marrying, and the daughter that he has with her. At this point he is a successful businessman working at a furniture company. But his seething anger and frequent outbursts eventually cost him his marriage and his job. He continues in his way barely affected by these losses, an assured swagger and a smile, cruel-tongued and ironic, accompanying the barely controlled violence that typifies his behavior.
As the film progresses we go back further, to Yong-Ho’s days as a police interrogator. He takes a preternatural and desensitized pleasure in beating suspects. Hong-Ja, whom he recently wedded, is pregnant, but he seems as though he could not care less. Further back, as a timid new recruit to the police force, his senior officers tell him, as a test of his mettle, to extract a confession from a man. Yong-Ho surprises everyone by letting loose on the man, literally scaring the shit out of him. “That smell won’t go away,” another officer later tells Yong-Ho, who is busily trying to scrub his hand clean. True, it will never leave him. The puzzle of where this rage originates gradually comes together, in a sense, albeit fragmented and incomplete. He sees Sun-Im for the last time before the final meeting on her deathbed. But he resists, almost masochistically, cruelly pushing her away by showing his burgeoning interest for the young waitress Hong-Ja. And then Sun-Im goes out of his life for good.
By the end of each successive chapter in the film, we feel as though we have a better understanding of Yong-Ho‘s behavior, if not a satisfactory explanation for it. The narrative, told in forward-playing extracts from his life, but in a sequence that goes backward chronologically, has an almost elliptical effect. The episodes, which happen years apart from one another (save for the first two), leave significant gaps of time unexplored, relying on a certain tail-end continuity for coherence. We always arrive in medias res, and aren’t told of his romance with Sun-Im, when he was conscripted, when he became a police officer, when he married Hong-Ja, when his daughter was born, nor when he became a president of the furniture company. None of those events correlate to the greater theory (or is it aporia?) of the film. It is the moments that we see, mostly arbitrary slices of life, that best illustrate the big picture.
Writer-director Lee seems just as bewildered by his protagonist’s actions as anyone who watches it will be, dwelling on the sheer inscrutability of his primal outbursts, but at the same time he is able to adeptly and subtly negotiate their root causes. Studying effect before cause is an engrossing and somewhat disorienting narrative strategy, looking at the ripples before the great plume thrown up by a heavy stone on its abysmal plummet. In the penultimate chapter we meet Yong-Ho as he is doing his mandatory military service. He receives letters regularly from Sun-Im, accompanied by the sweets of the film’s title, and can think of nothing but her. It is here that the formation of his character really occurs, the horror and regret that will have a stunting effect on the rest of his life. His controlling neuroses, his horrible attacks on colleagues and loved ones, while not justified, begin to make sense.
Yong-Ho spits back the anger and repression of the time while at the same time embodying it. His personality from the army stint forward is in some ways a product of the state, and his unraveling is tied to that of the flowering of authoritarianism of South Korean politics. In December of 1987 the government held their first democratic elections in sixteen years. Jung-Hee Park, in an effort to maintain control over parliament, constitutional amendments, and the people’s freedom, had declared a state of emergency in 1971. Post-military rule in the country began odiously with the killing of protesting students by the army in Gwangju, which became the country’s equivalent of the Tianamen Square massacre, alluded to during Yong-Ho’s military time. This is the trauma felt by countless soldiers forced to murder, and more broadly felt by the entire nation forced into consent.
Things work in reverse light: the most dire time is remembered with the most idealized fondness, for it is when Yong-Ho met Sun-Im and shyly told her about his ambition to photograph flowers. The floresence of the protagonist’s hatred like a political barometer, his power peaking during the 1980’s, a dark time for civil liberties in South Korea, and as things get more democratic, more progressive, the life is sapped out of him, a hapless Dorian Gray forced to mirror the steady transformation of the sociopolitical realities around him.
We see the first signs of his deterioration before he has started a family, before he has even become a businessman. It is 1987, and he and his equally sadistic police colleagues have tracked down the man they have been searching for, to Sun-Im’s hometown, incidentally, where she now lives. Yong-Ho walks around the town in the rain, sleeps with a strange and accommodating young woman, and when he nabs the suspect he is uncharacteristically unable to beat the man senseless. He falls into a trance, for the first time regretting pushing his love away. Why did he choose Hong-Ja? Precisely because he didn’t feel for her, his guilt and trauma catapulting him into a conventional but loveless family situation, followed by success, followed by breakdown.
At an earlier part of the film (read: later in time) Yong-Ho personally confronts his wife and her lover during one of their trysts, and he engages in a bout of planned savagery in their motel room, beating the two of them before merrily sending them both on their way. Afterwards he hypocritically, or vengefully, sleeps with his secretary from the furniture company, who had been waiting in the car for him the whole time. It seems he doesn’t actually care that his wife has been having an affair, but merely seizes on the opportunity to disrupt, to inflict cruelty and find an outlet of blame on others. Sensing his victimhood but unable to communicate it, he displaces responsibility throughout most of his life. At the beginning of the film, when he is close to suicide, and at the culmination of his collapse, he lists a group of people he thinks have wronged him. Only upon seeing Sun-Im dying in the hospital, she the fading afterecho of a life that was allowed to slip through his fingers, does he recognize, in its actuality, the extent of his own culpability.
As we go back in time through the main character’s history, Lee imagines a backwards rail journey through the countryside, where the past can be revisited, and if not changed, at least better understood. The emerging train is an aptly symbolic for the way that Yong-Ho has conducted his life since his traumatic experience in the army, and it reappears throughout the film, mostly at moments of sexual or violent release. It relates to both of these types of instances, beyond the crude coital metaphor, signifying issues of longing, power, and the inclination towards destruction, all bound up with one another.
The train moves on inexorably, imperturbably, a bolt of depersonalized machinery, a bit like a soldier. And it also has faint signs of humanity trapped behind its silvery mass, like the panicked conductor who sounds the horn as it bears down on the dwarfed figure of the salaryman but is unable to stop. Yong-Ho himself exudes the same sort of desperation even as he blusters and rages and intimidates, the sense of being set in motion against one’s will, and quite powerless against change. Derailment comes as a sort of release, a definite slide towards an end, and a closing of a chapter in his nation’s history.
(edited from my blob)