A poignant, funny and often challenging look at an unlikely romance between a mentally challenged ex-con and a woman suffering from cerebral palsy directed by Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Green Fish)…
Released out of prison in the same summer clothing he was locked up in, the real world isn’t particularly kind to ex-con Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu, Voice Of A Murderer, Public Enemy). His childlike inability to control his impulses has staked up a series of convictions. When he decides to pay a social visit to the family of the man he killed whilst drunk driving, and by chance meets and becomes fascinated by the man’s disabled daughter, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri, Bewitching attraction, A Good Lawyers Wife).
Returning to the apartment to see the girl, Jong-du loses control of his feelings for the girl, ending up sexually assaulting her. Despite this, the girl calls him at his workplace sand invites him to come over and visit him again. So begins a series of furtive encounters over which the pair begin to fall for each other. Yet, as two outcasts taken advantage of by their family and shunned by society, they are too innocent to realise that their love for each other will not be easily understood by anyone else.
Writer and director Lee Chang-dong’s (Peppermint Candy, Green Fish, Secret Sunshine) third film from 2002 pulls few punches in its storytelling. It’s a stark, cold reality, interspersed with sweet, tender fantasy scenes of how the romance could have been had the couple not been disabled, reminiscent of Ken Loach (though it’s always dangerous to make such comparisons). It’s most present in the everyday humour he brings to the plot; there are no heavily engineered devices to bring laughter, but instead touching reality that brings with it a share of both happy and sad moments.
Whilst challenging our perception of how those with disabilities should be treated, Chang-dong picks his way through the potential minefield. He avoids dodging the more difficult questions, instead heading into them straight on: can a person with disabilities have an adult relationship, or should they be protected? Who are families to tell them they are doing wrong, and so on. It’s a thin line Chang-dong treads, and one that relies totally on the believable performances of his leads.
Both Sol and Moon worked together in Chang-dong’s previous film Peppermint Candy, but here their role require far more from them. Moon in particular has to demonstrate an incredible physicality in her role, and in the telling behind-the-scenes ‘Making of’ documentary it takes an exceptional toll on her emotionally. Especially as – despite what you might expect from such a gritty, unflinching filming style – it becomes obvious director Chang-dong has such a specific vision in his head that he will retake a scene time after time until he gets it right. (Which might well explain the five-year gap between Oasis and Secret Sunshine.)
Here his diligence is well-placed, for this is not a subject that can be dealt with half-heartedly without either making light of the situation, or becoming a rosy, glossy Americanised version where everyone gets along and learn there lessons on how to treat those with disabilities. It’s heart-rending to see the way both families exploit their relations in order to keep their status in society – and make a better life for themselves out of it.
Once again this shows a true commitment by Third Window Films to release films that are out of the usual line of sight for Asian releases in the UK, however celebrated they are or deserve to be released. After all, it’s seven years after the original release, five years after it was released in the US, and currently the only Lee Chang-dong film previously released in the UK was Green Fish (again by Third Window and even then only last year). Sure, it’s not altogether a comfortable watch – it makes you think like a good film should – yet it’s completely uplifting…
Oasis is available on DVD in the UK from Third Window Films.
Oasis continues the Moon So-ri season at the Korean Cultural Centre UK this Thursday. The screening is free but you must book a place first.
Moon So-ri is due to appear in person as the culmination of the KCCUK’s first quarter of their The Year Of The Four Actors.
Review originally published 7 August 2009. (Note: Peppermint Candy was released the following year.)
Distributor: Third Window Films (UK)
Though light on extras, this release has a great ‘Making of’ feature as mentioned above. With B-roll footage and perceptive interviews from the lead cast members, this is a fascinating insight into the filmmaking process.