A mesmerizing story of outcast lovers on the margins of a cruelly unaccommodating world, “Oasis” is an eloquent expression of both unorthodox romance and bitter disillusionment with the hypocritical institutions of family and society. Radically different from Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s accomplished earlier works “Green Fish” and “Peppermint Candy,” this uncompromising drama — driven by two powerfully focused performances — won both the Special Director’s Award and international critics prize in Venice. Commercially, this is a tough prospect, but awards attention could help overcome its difficult subject matter and open arthouse avenues.
Shivering in summer clothes in the middle of a Seoul winter, Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-gu) is hauled in by cops on the day he’s released from prison when he’s unable to pay a restaurant bill. His younger brother (Ryoo Seung-wan) bails him out and reunites him with the rest of the family. But, they make it clear they’ve been getting along fine without Jong-Du, who suffers from a slight mental handicap and has always been a source of trouble. Nonetheless, his older brother (Ahn Nae-sang) sets him up with a job and a bed in his car repair shop.
Jong-Du begins to secretly call on the family of the man he was convicted of killing in a drunk driving accident. They angrily dismiss him, but he remains fascinated by the dead man’s severely disabled daughter Gong-Ju (Moon So-ri), who has cerebral palsy. Her family is no more caring than Jong-Du’s; her brother and his wife (Sohn Byung-ho, Yoon Ga-hyun) have moved into the government-subsidized disability housing provided for her, leaving the young woman alone in a shabby apartment to be tended by indifferent neighbors.
A novelist as well as screenwriter, Lee sharply conveys the hollowness of this environment of unfeeling, exploitative figures around the central couple. He creates a touching sense of their relationship as an island of purity amid an emotional and communicative void.
That relationship develops gradually from a shocking starting point. Jong-Du enters Gong-Ju’s apartment when she’s alone, and her panicked response to his affections leads him to become violent. She loses consciousness during his confused attempt to rape her, and he soothes and revives her, leaving his number at the repair shop so she can find him. To Jong-Du’s surprise, she calls, and the two begin a clandestine friendship.
Responding to the first person to treat her as a human being and a woman, Gong-Ju manages basic communication with Jong-Du. He gives her a respite from her closed existence, taking her out in cars he borrows from the repair shop. When Jong-Du exposes her to his family at a birthday dinner, the foolish experiment proves disastrous and humiliating for both of them.
That night, Gong-Ju asks him to stay with her, but when her horrified brother and his wife show up unexpectedly and find the couple making love, they call police and have Jong-Du charged with rape. During tense scenes at the police station, Gong-Ju is unable to articulate her feelings and defend Jong-Du, driving her to violent, physically convulsive behavior. Jong-Du escapes and heads back to her apartment, climbing a tree outside her window and literally hacking away at the girl’s demons in a sorrowfully affecting final act.
Quietly scathing in its view of a materialistic, self-serving society and its ease in sweeping misfits aside, Lee’s drama also makes provocative points about the legitimacy of desire, the right to love and the conflict that arises when love crosses socially acceptable boundaries. Despite the potential to shock, handling of intimate scenes between the couple is matter-of-fact and detached, often incorporating moments of gentle humor, in contrast to the eager exploration of sexual extremes in many recent Korean films.
While the film feels overlong and arguably could lose 15 minutes, the director’s control of the material never falters. A loose, documentary shooting style and complete absence of technical frills are used to concentrate attention on the lovers and further isolate them from their surroundings. Music is sourced largely to the radio that keeps Gong-Ju company.
One notable exception is a lovely, whimsical fantasy scene — which comes to life from a tapestry on Gong-Du’s wall — in which the couple dances with a baby elephant to exotic music. In this and a handful of other sequences, Jong-Du’s willingness to see past Gong-Ju’s disability causes her to appear as a physically normal woman.
Reteaming his “Peppermint Candy” leads, Lee extracts remarkable, galvanizing performances. The physical contortions and Herculean effort required for Gong-Ju to negotiate even a simple act like dialing a telephone are tough to watch at times. But Moon shows subtle skill at uncovering the dignity, humor and tenderness hidden within Gong-Ju’s twisted frame, earning her the Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor or actress in Venice.
Equally impressive, however, is Sol. All wiry edginess and twitchy unpredictability at first, sniffling constantly and shifting uneasily from one foot to another, he gradually exposes the man’s wounded soul, reaching out to perhaps the first person not to judge him.