Finding a Way to My Father Through ‘Peppermint Candy’
Could knowing his pain impart some truth to my understanding of my own life?
These days, when I want to see my father, I turn to stories: the ones in my head, the ones I’m starting to discover, and the ones he taught me to love, on the page and on the screen, back when we still had a relationship.
Because I’ve been estranged from both of my parents for the better part of a decade now, I see stories as my only way of filling in the void that they’ve left in my life.
Back when I still lived under my father’s roof, before he could ever know the trajectory of my life and the separation to come between us, he wrote a clue for me, perhaps subconsciously, while helping me tell my life story for the first time.
I was thirteen, thrilled that my seventh-grade teacher had assigned us to write our own autobiographies, chapter by chapter, through a series of manageable homework assignments. Chapter 35 was a “parent letter,” in which I was to trust one of my parents to write a bit about how they saw me. Between Appa and Umma, there was only one obvious choice: my father.
While I never saw my mother with a book in her hand, Appa was the one who brought me, without fail, on his weekly visits to the public library. Together, we piled up crinkly stacks of plastic-sheathed library books and clamshell cases of classic films on VHS. We brought them home, and we searched for meaning. He would turn to theological texts to compose his Sunday sermons over his electric typewriter. I devoured tales of bold, independent girls—girls like Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Scout Finch—that inspired me to bang out my own stories of adventure on the sticky manual typewriter that Appa once salvaged for me from a Salvation Army.
For his chapter in my middle-school autobiography, Appa typed out just half a page about me, his defiantly assimilated, American-born daughter. “I wish she would learn more about Korean customs, culture, and etiquette,” he wrote. “If she learns about Korean history and culture she can understand her parents more and she can have more experience in different cultures.” He left it there. Upon reading his words, I shrugged his wishes away in my own adolescent disinterest.
“I want to go back,” a middle-aged Korean man roars, staring directly into the camera, early in the 1999 film Peppermint Candy, one of the narratives I return to again and again as I puzzle over the enigmatic details of my father’s life. Written and directed by South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong, the film tells the story of Young-ho, a man of my father’s generation, in reverse chronological order. As the film unfolds, taking us further back, scene by scene, through Young-ho’s past, Lee illustrates the way one man’s history, including his seminal trauma, will continue to reverberate across his life.
When Young-ho screams his desperate words in Peppermint Candy’s most arresting scene, I hear a version of my father’s hope for me: I want you to go back.
Appa never did teach me about Korean history or his own roots. That wasn’t part of the assigned blueprint for my seventh-grade autobiography. In fact, there seemed to be no place in these tidily bound pages for some of the events in my life that I still didn’t understand at age thirteen: The meaning of the term “child abuse. That child abuse could have anything to do with me and my sisters and the uneasy fear that we felt sometimes in our home. What it felt like for me to fear the person I loved most in this world, and how I believed, earnestly, that if I was good enough, I wouldn’t have to be afraid of him anymore. What it felt like to have the police come to my home one night to take me and my sisters away. What it felt like to return to our parents’ home based on some agreement worked out among faceless adults, with no explanation given to us kids.
I never saw these experiences committed to the pages of the books I consumed so eagerly, and so I assumed these were stories best left out of my own narrative. If I never wrote them down, I thought, they might cease to exist. I did not want to be the heroine of such a story.
I did not want to be the heroine of such a story.
Decades later, long after I would forget about my seventh-grade autobiography and what my father wrote, I would begin to seek out those stories on my own as a writer ready to excavate the neglected chapters of my personal history, not fully aware that I was living out my father’s express wish: I want you to go back.
In my estrangement from my family, I feel closest to Appa now when I return, be it physically or mentally, to South Korea, especially his hometown of Gwangju.
For most of my twenties, when I lived and worked in Seoul as a journalist, that return was corporeal, immersive. It took me years to realize that even the most mundane article in my newsroom queue might reveal some bread crumb of our culture, our language, our history. I am only now starting to see the trail that links my individual family story of separation, grief, and survival to a much larger legacy on the Korean Peninsula. These days, in my midthirties, as a global pandemic puts my biennial visits to Korea on hold, my return to our roots comes in the form of narratives that I wade through while I try to tell my life’s story once again.
I found Peppermint Candy a few years ago—through my public library, of course—while searching for stories that shed light on the 1980 Gwangju uprising. During the years that I worked in Seoul, I learned that Gwangju is a southern city whose name, in contemporary South Korea, is practically shorthand for a large-scale pro-democracy movement that took place between May 18 and May 27, 1980, and ended in the military’s horrific massacre of civilians.
It’s been years since I moved back to the US from Seoul, yet I keep finding myself picking at threads, as if to untie a knot with Gwangju at its center. If I could understand a bit more about this place my father is from, would it illuminate something about his pain? Could knowing his pain impart some truth to my understanding of my own life?
To be clear, while Peppermint Candy’s antihero, Young-ho, and my father would be of similar age, this fictional character’s life diverges dramatically from my father’s real-life experience, which remains to me, in many ways, shrouded in the unknown. We meet many different versions of Young-ho as the film moves backward in time: Young-ho as destructive force, Young-ho who hurts everyone he loves. Eventually, we’re able to trace the source of Young-ho’s pain to one place: Gwangju. Here, where his story intersects with my father’s, their roles are at odds: My father is one of the city’s native sons, while fictional Young-ho, an outsider from Seoul, is one of the soldiers sent down to suppress the 1980 citizens’ uprising.
I am on tenterhooks every time I watch the Gwangju uprising scenes of Peppermint Candy. By this point in the film, Lee’s script has revealed flickers of Young-ho’s humanity buried under his callous defenses, and I already feel a sense of mourning. It’s chaos as Young-ho’s unit touches down in the dark of night. In the din of chopper blades, shouting soldiers, and gunfire, I am just as disoriented as Young-ho. I lose him among all the helmets and shadow and obfuscation until his flailing form falls behind the pack, injured.
It’s been years since I moved back to the US from Seoul, yet I keep finding myself picking at threads, as if to untie a knot with Gwangju at its center.
Alone, wounded, and waiting for help in the nocturnal quiet, Young-ho encounters a local schoolgirl desperate to get home. “Please let me go,” she begs, and I feel myself pleading on her behalf, all the while knowing the brutality that the military will rain down on Gwangju citizens. It’s a relief when Young-ho relents, a sign of some softness still alive in him—and then his gun fires.
It’s a startling, devastating accident, just one civilian death of many more to come that night in Gwangju, and it shatters Young-ho.
History tells the uprising’s awful toll on a far larger scale. In 2018, when I last traveled to Gwangju, I interviewed a historian who estimated that the military’s violence touched one in fifteen families in the city, whether by death or by injury. Some activists and academics assert that the death countcould be as high as two thousand.
To process even a modicum of what happened in Gwangju in 1980, I’ve spent many moments sitting in dark, tense silence, absorbing what I can bear.
On my last Gwangju trip, while roaming the quiet halls of the May 18 Archives, I found myself peering into a dim room where the only light came from a screen showing newly found, silent black-and-white footage of the 1980 uprising and its aftermath. I wedged myself into a seat between silver-haired Korean seniors—the demographic most likely to hold on to this history—and made myself watch every frame: choking black smoke; rows of roughly hewn coffins; an abandoned taxi cab, its windshield blown out. “Bloodstained flag,” I noted in an ugly scrawl, and yet the historical footage kept the carnage to a tolerable remove.
While in real life the stark-white fabric of the Korean Taegeukgi would’ve been sullied to a stark, brutal crimson or a darker rust, it was all muted to dull shades of gray on-screen. I felt myself dissociate so that I could reduce the military’s cruelty to black-and-white text and numbers, to keep the pain in the realm of the unfathomable.
In the fictional world of Peppermint Candy, Young-ho’s guilt over one senseless death ripples through every scene for the rest of his life. The film allows me to feel the blow of emotional truth, an impact that’s magnified by my awareness of South Korea’s historical reality. When I consider how the Gwangju uprising as a whole would have devastated the city and the lives of its citizens, including my father, the enormity of the tragedy racks my brain and my body. Perhaps this is why it took me the better part of a year to write this essay, because it hurt too much to hold space for the factual and emotional realities of a past atrocity when my present left me feeling isolated and hopeless.
The art of nonfiction requires writing into the questions that grow into obsessions. For me, so many questions persist about my parents and their lives before they immigrated to the United States, these stories long papered over by their silence, then pulled completely from my reach by our severed family ties. I probe my brain trying to reconcile my memories of a caring, nurturing father with the abusive, neglectful man he could be. I love my parents, but they were never able to resolve the violence and instability that marred our lives in America. Estrangement was the only way that I could pull free. Perhaps it’s only from a distance that I can hold space for all of their disparate parts.
As a writer with this story to tell, I wonder what kind of ending I can offer a reader. My childhood self would have hoped desperately for a long-awaited reconciliation, a family brought together, the happily ever after that I expected at the end of every simple story. My adult self watches Peppermint Candy, a far more complex narrative told backward, an effort to teach the audience to find empathy for a deeply flawed man. Only after two hours of seeing Young-ho at his abject worst does the film offer a glimpse of its antihero at his gentle, undamaged best, youthful and basking in the sun on a resplendent autumn day. It’s this scene, a reminder that I need to find the words for the tenderness I once recognized in my father, that always breaks me.
I still don’t know where I’ll arrive at my story’s conclusion. But if my parents and I cannot be together in life, then I know where I can find them: here, in these pages, where I write into these questions to them—for them. For now, we can be together on this page.
Hannah Bae (she/her) is a freelance journalist and nonfiction writer who is at work on a memoir about family estrangement and mental illness. She is the 2020 nonfiction winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, a 2021 Peter Taylor Fellow for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops and a 2019 fellow with the Asian American Writers' Workshop. Find her bylines in The Washington Post, CNN, Eater and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @hanbae and on Instagram at @hannahbae.