Among all the countries in the world with a cinematic presence, Korea alone seems to be an outlet for the most simultaneously punishing and rewarding movies around. The most startling thing about movies like Oldboy, The Isle, Too Young to Die, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Say Yes is not that they are transgressive or disturbing (although many of them are), but that most of them were made for mainstream moviegoing audiences, or as close to such a thing as there is in Korea. No major movie production company in this country would dare greenlight a movie in which a man eats a real live squid (Oldboy), or where two septuagenarians have unsimulated on-camera sex (Young), or where a man swallows fishhooks in an aborted attempt to commit suicide (Isle).
By casting things in this light, though, I am probably obscuring the underlying issue: These are all excellent movies that deserve a broad, thoughtful audience. The subject matter or the various ingredients of each should not scare people off. The same goes for Oasis, which tackles several unpleasant subjects at once in such a gentle and sometimes disarmingly matter-of-fact way (at least for most of its running time) that the shock is blunted. Someone else has described it as “a beautiful movie about ugly things.” It’s a fitting description.
The main character of Oasis, Jong-du (Kyung-gu Sol)—I’m not sure we should call him a “protagonist”, since he is not designed to inspire empathy at first—has just gotten out of prison for having hit and killed someone with his car. He’s either mildly retarded or just plain inept: he stands too close, talks too loud, spits a little too freely. The movie never bothers with an explanation, which is fine; his behavior alone is all we need. His first impulse upon leaving prison is to go to the family of the man he killed and bring them a gift basket to show he’s sorry. He may mean well, but he has no idea how to express his feelings in a socially acceptable way. His family wants little or nothing to do with him, as one might well imagine; when he was still in prison, they moved and left no forwarding address.
When he goes to deliver his pathetic gift to the dead man’s family, he discovers they have a severely-handicapped daughter, Gong-ju (So-ri Moon). This leads to a scene that many people have not applauded, where Jong-du tears her clothes off on the pretext of giving her a bath, gropes her, has sex with her, and flees in shame. Then something even more startling happens: Gong-ju sends him a message. She wants to see him again. Not because she is stupid or inept herself—in fact, she’s quite literate and intelligent, just deeply crippled in body, and she senses that of all the people around her Jong-du might need her the most. It is a good thing to be needed, especially when their respective families have either abandoned them or used them; in Gong-ju’s case, her family cynically exploits her handicap so they can live in the free government-subsidized apartment provided for her.
The two begin to spend time together, and the movie watches unblinkingly as they stumble through the niceties of human companionship. It would be so easy to make a movie where this material is treated as some kind of tasteless joke, but Oasis somehow never breaks tone. They comfort each other, they provide each other with a sense of completeness that others cannot, and they tolerate each other’s shortcomings: her sullen temper, or his social awkwardness. Every now and then the director, Chang-dong Lee, lets down the guard all the way and gives us a fantasy moment where Gong-ju rises from her wheelchair and speaks and moves with perfect freedom. This lovely young woman we see in those moments, what she could mean to any of us—that’s what she means to him.
All of this exists despite the fact that his own behavior is sometimes downright baffling. At one point Jong-du brings his girlfriend to a family function he was never meant to show up at. His actions can be read two ways—as an attack on them, or as an attempt to be accepted on his own terms, or maybe both at the same time. Is he disappointed in them, the way they are in him? Does he love them anyway, even when they have rejected him so completely? The acting in this scene—indeed, throughout the whole movie—is convincing and more than a little courageous. Not just from So-ri Moon, who plays Gong-ju, but Kyung-gu Sol, who gives us an essentially unlikable character and makes us want to watch him.
I suspect Oasis will not be palatable to people who have preconceptions about the disabled—especially the notion that they’re asexual creatures, which has been repeatedly disproven. We have a kind of conspiracy of silence when it comes to love among the disabled, both mentally and physically. Isn’t it cruel in some ways, people reason, to allow people like that to come together? Cruel to whom? I ask. To us, because we have a hard time seeing this sort of thing as anything but a hideous travesty of the “real thing”?
Oasis has two significant flaws, and both are strong enough to damage the film. The first is a revelation that seems engineered to milk sympathy out of us for one character, but it’s a mistake: we don’t need to be more sympathetic, since we’ve already been allowed to see him for what he is, warts and all. The other flaw is the messy, drawn-out climax and inept concluding scenes. Instead of tragedy or insight we get ludicrous melodrama which had me shaking my head in dismay. It’s sad to see a movie do so many things right only to fall back on plot contrivance to duck the very issues it raises. That said, up until it steps wrong, Oasis has genuine courage, and, yes, finds a real beauty in the ugly things it sees.
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