Oasis (오아시스), the third film by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), is an absolute masterpiece. Director Lee has built his career on exploring and critiquing Korean culture through artistic frameworks, and with Oasis he deftly examines the challenging subject matter of the plights endured by the mentally ill and disabled. In depicting the burgeoning romance between mildly mentally ill Hong Jong-du and cerebral palsy sufferer Han Gong-ju, director Lee also highlights the intolerance and hypocrisy of society and the resulting impact on their lives. The power of the film is such that it won several notable awards upon release – particularly at the Venice Film Festival – for the novelist-turned-director, as well as for the exceptional performances by lead actors Moon So-ri (문소리) and Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구).
During the middle of winter, mentally ill Hong Jong-du (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) is released from serving a two and half year prison sentence for a hit-and-run that resulted in a man’s death. Returning to society in his summer clothes, Jong-du discovers that his family has moved without letting him know though rejoins them again through another brush with the law. Attempting to fit in with society once more, Jong-du feels compelled to visit the family of the man who was killed and discovers his daughter, Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri (문소리), who suffers with cerebral palsy. Immediately fascinated by her, Jong-du visits Gong-ju when she is alone and frightens her, yet as time passes the two form an incredible bond despite the pressure from family and society.
Oasis is an exceptionally poignant film. Director Lee employs a social-realist aesthetic in exploring the difficulties of the disabled, adding compelling realism to the trials they are forced to endure. The notion of family is notable in this regard and the film pulls no punches in articulating the selfish ambitions, hypocrisy and ignorance exhibited by the relatives. Such discourses begin immediately as Jong-du, who has the mental ability of a child, cannot find his family once released from prison and only reunites with them when he once again gets in trouble. The intolerance displayed by the family is indeed shocking throughout as they attempt to force Jong-du to become part of society despite his obvious limitations, reprimanding him with astonishing lack of compassion when he inevitably fails. Gong-ju is abused in a similar fashion as she is routinely exploited by her family when required but discarded almost immediately after. Director Lee portrays the suffering of the lead protagonists with incredible potency, never judging any of the characters or events with cinematic techniques but simply allowing the actors to convey the respective personalities, to which audiences can ascribe their own opinions. This lack of manipulation is executed superbly and deftly sidesteps the all-too-easy pitfalls of melodramatic conventions, and as such the palpable emotional weight within Oasis is the result of some of the finest acting in contemporary cinema.
It is impossible to discuss Oasis without referring to the simply exquisite performances conducted by Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu. Moon So-ri in particular is exceptional as cerebral palsy suffering Gong-ju, contorting her body and facial features with astounding skill to convey the protagonist with absolute sincerity. Gong-ju’s frustrations at her inability to move and speak freely are genuinely moving, yet it is her development from lonely wallflower to confident young woman that is a joy to behold. The love and companionship nurtured between her and Jong-du grows subtly and naturally, with the evolving happiness and dignity on display a constant source of compulsion. Within this development Seol Kyeong-gu is momentous as Jong-du, conveying the character’s mannerisms – including a constant cold – and infectious child-like behaviour with real skill. Director Lee continues his deconstruction of Korean masculinity through Jong-du, who initially loses control of his faculties and attempts – and fails – to rape Gong-ju, yet learns that compassion is more important than such base desires. It is a notion lost on the other male antagonists, who continue to view women as little more than commodities.
In addition to family, Oasis examines the society inhabited by Jong-du and Gong-ju, highlighting the terms of difference and exclusion in which it operates. Wherever the couple visit, and whatever events they attempt to partake in, they are shunned, rejected, and forced to the margins. Yet rather than focus on the negativity such incidents incur director Lee instead portrays how such marginalization brings the couple closer together as kindred spirits, reinforcing their spiritual connection through their mutual suffering.
Given the social-realist aesthetic it is surprising that the director occasionally injects fantasy sequences within the narrative, but far from detracting from the development they serve to enrich it. The moments in which Gong-ju’s deepest desires achieve fruition are tender and sweet, allowing her to express freely what her taut frame otherwise doesn’t allow. Within this realm lies the true potency of the film’s title, at once expressing Gong-ju’s fear of the darkness encroaching on her life but simultaneously providing a secret space for her and Jong-du to truly express their devotion without judgement. Such scenes are moving, artistic, and beautiful in their construction, capturing the depth of their understated love in the most compelling and sincere fashion.
Oasis is an exceptional masterpiece. The social-realist aesthetic applied in depicting the burgeoning relationship between the lead couple is executed magnificently by auteur Lee Chang-dong, who deftly sidesteps melodrama in conveying the development of love between mentally ill and cerebral palsy individuals. Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu are simply exquisite in the lead roles and are utterly captivating throughout, articulating acute sincerity ad poignancy within their respective performances. Oasis is an absolute must-see film.