Lee Chang-Dong's Oasis Film Review

oasis korean film moon so-ri and sol kyung-gu

   A love story for the unlovable, the outcasts of society, Lee Chang-dong’s intense melodrama Oasis is a remarkable movie which touches nerves and hearts with the same ferocity.

   As romantic leads go, our protagonists are not Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court or Rick and Ilsa. Nor are they outsiders in the way the non-frat kids of the American Pie franchise might consider themselves. They're despised by society and even their own families. Its impossible to imagine a lower wrung for Jong-du and Gong-ju to exist on - but does this say more about the people that put them in the scummiest doldrums of life than it does them?

   The magnificent Sol Kyung-gu, in a career best performance, plays Hong Jong-du – a man with learning difficulties just released from jail for a hit-and-run incident. He is ugly, aggressive, vulgar, untouchable. He’s the type of person we’d all cross the road to avoid and would do our best to avoid eye contact with. He stares intrusively, surrounds strangers with excessive intimacy, his behaviour is that of a man who knows not what to do in society. Upon release from jail he orders food knowing he cannot afford it and offers his shoes in place of payment. His next wise idea is to visit the family of the man who was killed in the drink driving accident. This, of course, is rebutted with an incredible, and understandable, rage.

   Sadly for the family, it is Hong's visit to their home which alerts him to Han Gong-ju (an incredible Moon So-ri), the cerebral palsy afflicted daughter of the man killed in the car crash. When she is left alone, abandoned in an isolated room, Jong-du returns and attempts to rape her. As far as Meet Cutes go, this is not Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.



    Unexpectedly, Jong-du receives a message from Gong-ju - unloved by her own family, and perhaps even uncertain what such an emotion is, she sees a fellow outsider in Hong. A prisoner in her own body, Gong-ju realises Jong-du is the only person who will provide her attention, or a means to escape the four walls of her existence, whilst he savours someone who won't ignore or avoid him. Indeed, she is physically incapable of doing so. Strangely, they are a bizarre match for one another – whilst both find themselves shunned by society they can provide each other with companionship. They accept each other, even when no-one else will.

   Jong-du and Gong-ju create a universe for themselves to live in - one not entirely based on the reality of the hostile world around them. Their version of love is sometimes not as straightforward as ours. Indeed, the place Lee creates for them matches magic realism with miserablism - their imaginations often more comforting than the cold, moribund life outside their fantastical, imagined shelter.

   In Oasis, Lee denigrates the so-called civilised amongst us with a fevered intensity. For their relatives, Jong-du and Gong-ju are nothing more than nuisances who are useful only as far as they can be exploited. Gong-ju's disabilities entitle her family to a bigger house and Jong-du is treated as an embarrassment when he can't be manipulated as a useful fool. Like Tod Browning's Freaks, Lee asks us to question who the real monsters are. Perhaps we, the audience viewing this film, are partially complicit for some of the horrors that unfold onscreen and, more depressingly, in the real world around us.

   Oasis is, to say the least, aggressively anti-mainstream yet filmed with such expertise, bravura and (even) empathy that its unlikely the limited numbers who discover the movie will be anything but awe-struck. A damning indictment but one which never reduces itself to sermonising, Lee's ambiguous movie asks nothing more of us than to view life from a different angle. It is lonely, sad and brutal from this new point of view and unlike anything else on offer in cinema.
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