It was ironic that I almost missed this afternoon’s screening of the Korean film Oasis
due to Madison’s Gay Pride Parade. Helmed by novelist turned writer-director Lee Chang-dong, Oasis
tells an unlikely love story against the backdrop of society’s disapproval. Sol Kyung-gu plays Hong Jong-du, a recently released convict whose irresponsibility and lack of social mores is seen as an embarrassment and burden by his urban, middle-class family, especially his judgmental elder brother Jong-il (though it’s never really elucidated in the film, there is clearly something “off” about Jong-du, who is, in some way, developmentally disabled). The bulk of the film concerns Jong-du’s growing relationship with a young woman named Han Gong-ju, played by actress Moon So-ri. To say their relationship is unlikely is an understatement as Gong-ju suffers from severe cerebral palsy, Jong-du went to jail for killing her father in an auto-accident (they meet when Jong-du nonchalantly attempts to make amends with the Han family), and there first real meeting ends in Jong-du’s attempted rape of a terrified Gong-ju (that is, until Jong-du’s brain catches up with his body and he is stricken with guilt and remorse). Despite all that, the isolated and lonely Gong-ju reaches out to the disaffected Jong-du one night, and he reciprocates with something that Gong-ju has rarely experienced. He treats her like a normal person, whereas her family treats her like a leper (they exploit her disability to get themselves a brand new apartment while leaving her all alone in their old, rundown place) and the neighbor who is being paid to watch over her can barely bother, even using Gong-ju’s apartment for an afternoon tryst with her lover.
At first, I didn’t think I was going to like Oasis
. I thought the lead actors’ performances were somewhat, annoying mannered; Sol’s Jong-du shuffles around throughout the film, and he loudly sniffles practically throughout the entire film, and Moon So-ri, who is not disabled, gives a bravura impression of someone afflicted with cerebral palsy, though at first I was always cognizant that she was performing. There was that, and the entire attempted rape, which was appropriately disturbing, and which gave me a queasy feeling when their relationship began in earnest. However, as the film went along (and at 2 hours, 13 minutes long, the film takes its time developing the characters and their various relationships), it slowly drew me in as I became invested in their relationship. Jong-du’s lavish attention, growing affection, and refreshing patience makes him an increasingly sympathetic character (not to mention that we later learn the truth behind his latest conviction), and allows Gong-ju to open up, so I could focus more on the character than the actress’s physical performance. Their relationship is a memorable collections of simple moments captured by Lee Chang-dong’s observational yet sympathetic camera (thank god, for a film dealing with the disabled, it never degenerates into schmaltz, never even coming close) : conversations in her apartment; doing the laundry; singing; enjoying the crisp, winter air on the rooftop of her apartment building; riding the subway; ordering noodles; talking on the phone. The accretion of moments and observations is a welcome respite from the couple’s separate familial problems, which worsen over the course of the film, especially after Jong-du’s family learns of his relationship with Gong-ju in one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the entire film.
Lee makes a crucial stylistic choice, which was perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie, he allows us inside of the mind of Gong-ju, who, of course, is the character who has the most trouble communicating in general. Our first introduction to Gong-ju is actually of an angelic dove fluttering around her apartment to the soft sounds of someone quietly singing, Gong-ju remaining out of frame. When we finally glimpse Gong-ju we learn that she uses a hand mirror to reflect the sunlight onto the walls and ceiling of her drab apartment, using her imagination to turn the motes of light into birds and butterflies, which despite how it sounds, is not cloying or precious. Much more importantly, Lee integrates lyrical fantasy sequences from Gong-ju’s perspective seamlessly into the film, veering from realist (on the subway, Gong-ju watches a couple talk and flirt, and imagines herself as a woman with complete control of her body, mimicking the woman across the car by slapping the inattentive Jong-du with a plastic water bottle) to the magical realist (the tapestry from which the film takes its title comes alive in her living room). All the actorly tics melt away and we are forced to contend solely with a vibrant young woman, the gulf between her uncooperative body and her inner life adding the right bit of poignancy and sadness to the proceedings.
This gulf comes to a head in the final sequences of the film, when Gong-ju asserts herself and asks Jong-du to sleep with her. The scene starts out humorously, as Jong-du at first does not comprehend her request, and then, in an inversion of their first encounter, is somewhat reluctant to do so. Their lovemaking is awkward but tender, Jong-du always inquires if he is hurting her (truth be told, it was hard to tell), which she answers by clearly drawing Gong-ju closer to her. Unfortunately, her brother and sister-in-law pick that time to make one of their infrequent visits. Finding the two of them in bed with each other horrifies her family, who can not comprehend Gong-ju as a sexual being, and immediately jump to the conclusion that he is raping her. He’s arrested by the police and taken to the jail; Gong-ju is so emotionally flustered that her spasms worsen, and she is unable to tell the police and her family what was actually happened. Pretty much ignoring her, they simply proceed to report what they think happened. She becomes so frustrated that she violently pushes her wheelchair back into a metal filing cabinet over and over again, to the shock of everyone around her. For his part, Jong-du does not even attempt to defend himself, and his family pretty much disowns him, though his younger brother makes a feeble attempt to defend him when Gong-ju’s brother tries to shake them down.
Jong-du does manage to escape from police custody, and makes his way back to Gong-ju’s apartment in what I think it one of the most touching and poetic endings (albeit crazy) to a film that I saw this year. Jong-du climbs the tree that looms outside Gong-ju’s bedroom and begins to maniacally saw off the tree limbs that used to cast menacing shadows on her bedroom wall (it’s a recurring motif used throughout the film), while the bewildered police watch from below, dodging fallen branches and sipping coffee. Gong-ju, unable to yell out to her lover, instead struggles to lift her radio up to the window sill, loudly blaring her favorite music out the window. The whole thing looks crazy to those looking from the outside, and the cranky comments from all the neighbors can attest to that fact, but Lee is able to pull off this unusual expression of love without falling into sentimentality.
The film itself ends with a short coda. We see Gong-ju slowly cleaning her apartment as we hear Jong-du’s voice on the soundtrack, narrating a letter written to her from prison. He’s still hopeful for a future with her, and as the camera silently observes her slowly sweeping up her living room floor, we see that her relationship with Jong-du has invested her with a lasting sense of independence.