Sunday Editor’s Pick: Oasis (2002)

by on March 12, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun March 18 at 7:00 at Japan Society [Program & Tix]

Japan Society’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” series on Japanese and Korean l’amour fou goes out with a bang, with a film whose Venice Film Festival-winning director labelled it “”the world’s most vile melodrama.”

Andrew Sarris for The New York Observer:

Oasis is clearly one of the strangest films from anywhere, focused as it is on the socially disruptive romance between a slightly retarded and socially maladjusted ex-convict named Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) and Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a young woman almost completely disabled by an attack of cerebral palsy.

Even if one fancies oneself compassionate to the plight of the handicapped, one may not wish to spend much of the two hours watching the grotesque grimaces and contorted body movements of Han Gong-ju as she allows herself to be paraded across town by her devoted, if slightly demented, lover. But take my word for it: Oasis is one of the most deeply felt love stories of the screen in ways that you must endure a little suffering of your own to appreciate. Oasis is passionate without being sentimental, and poetic without being evasive or euphemistic. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The closest approximation is Luis Buñuel’s steadfast Goyaesque gaze at the rural Spanish inhabitants deformed by poverty and malnutrition in Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread.



Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Lee is a director of infinite daring and equal tenderness. The combination allows him to tell a love story of two young people marginalized by family and society that becomes a scorching indictment of the indifference, cruelty and hypocrisy of those institutions as the couple inevitably come into profound conflict with them. “Oasis” is an unforgettable experience from yet another filmmaker who is making South Korean cinema one of the most vibrant of any emerging on the international scene.


Chris Chang for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2001):

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis explored a veritable halfway house of the mind. Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-du), a mildly retarded petty in inal, would be able to stay out of trouble if his brain were a wee bit more functional. He meets and later rapes the wheelchair bound Gon-ju (Moon So-ri), a woman suffering from a severe case of cerebral palsy. Her friends and family respond with appropriate rage and disgust, and then the two damaged minds (and bodies) embark on an unlikely relationship-an idiosyncratic refuge amidst the world’s so-called normalcy. The film deals with their mental conditions in a spectral way: at times the actors deliberately readjust themselves back to “normal”-you can actually sense it as they, for lack of better words, snap in and out of it. There’s something meta-cinematic going on here, as the film winks at its audience, implying a world in which mental problems are as mutable as the talent of the cast. And with the likes of Sol and Moon, that talent is formidable, and ultimately liberating.



Stephen Holden for The New York Times:

By not turning away, softening or adopting a saccharine tone, the film breaks through the couple’s isolation (and through our own prejudice and frustration) so that they emerge as full human characters. The movie, directed and written by Lee Chang-dong, neither pretends that a romantic connection can magically deliver these two from their isolation nor portrays them as holy innocents lacking strong human appetites.

The film’s extraordinary lead performers refuse to soft-pedal the severity of the characters’ afflictions. Even as it becomes evident that Jong-Du is a gentle soul, he doesn’t suddenly develop a social conscience or a higher intelligence. This is who he is, passionate, childlike and unemployable, with no sense of boundaries.
Gong-Ju has an irrational terror of the shadows of the branches outside her window moving against the picture. And in the most daring fantasy sequence, the figures in the tapestry, including the elephant, come alive. Touching as they are, the film’s scattered moments of enchantment only underscore the unbreachable gulf between the sweethearts and the outside world.



Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

Lee Chang-dong’s audacious melodrama Oasis appears, at first blush, to be the worst in disease-of-the-week gooiness: the touching story of a romance between a brain-addled ex-con and a woman crippled by severe cerebral palsy. It’s even littered with fantasy sequences in which the two magically transcend their physical and mental limitations and express their feelings in more socially acceptable ways. But, far from the teddy-bear sentimentality that usually accompanies films about the afflicted, Oasis fearlessly skirts the edge of good taste, with moments of sweetness and emotional generosity colliding with stark brutality and exploitation.

Throughout the film, Lee relieves Sol and Moon’s dire circumstances with moving fantasy interludes—some imagine what it would be like if Moon could escape her tortured frame, while one suddenly fills her apartment with music, flowers, and a baby elephant. At times, Sol’s erratic behavior brushes back the audience’s sympathies, because his romantic impulsiveness endangers Moon as often as it flatters her; it’s never quite clear until the end how much of their relationship exists merely to satisfy his desires. In a sense, Oasis is an unabashed tearjerker, but Lee keeps knocking the melodrama off-balance, making all the big emotional payoffs a little discomforting, because they’re not that far removed from something really disturbing. In observing a relationship that exists outside social norms, it’s only natural that Lee’s movies follow in kind.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Oasis” is a love story involving two young people abandoned by families unwilling to give them the love and attention they require. We in the audience may be equally unwilling to give them love and attention, and that’s why the film works so powerfully. Its heroine is a woman rendered almost powerless by cerebral palsy. Its hero is a man so obnoxious and clueless that while he’s in prison his family moves and leaves no forwarding address. They meet when he rapes her.
The new South Korean cinema is transgressive and disturbing, open to forms of behavior that are almost never seen in the films of the West. It can be about urgent, undisciplined, perverse needs; it can have the graphic detail of pornography yet show no hint of an erotic purpose; it can accept extreme characters and make no attempt to soften them or make them likable. There’s something stunning and even inspiring in its indifference to popular taste. “Oasis” depends on scenes that could not be contemplated within the Western commercial cinema; it is unconventional to the point of aggression.



Michael Atkinson for The Village Voice:

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis is, at first blush, one of those occasional miracles that approach leapingly scandalous material with a superhuman charity and somehow dodge charges of tastelessness. In the end, it’s a daring heartbreaker. Throughout, Lee’s light-footed realism gives way to moments of matter-of-fact lyrical sorcery, most often when, as a wickedly unlikely romance blooms between these two misfits, Moon suddenly relaxes her character’s harshly twisted deformity, springs out of her wheelchair, and dances. Somehow, the subjective abandonment of Gong-ju’s confining physicality—in effect, allowing us to see the distance between Moon’s lovely, vibrant self and her damn-the-torpedoes imitation of disablement—only brings us in closer, refocusing our gaze on the woman rather than the deformity. You begin to look forward to those moments, as when Jong-du is carrying her on a subway platform and you see her hands relax, abruptly able to hold him in return.
Oasis displays astonishing confidence: Jong-du’s first reaction to Gong-ju is to try to rape her, a taboo-lacerating scene that meets its comeuppance later when the couple’s first consensual encounter, itself a tearjerking marvel, is found out and confronted by their outraged (but covertly amoral) families. Just as ballsy, Moon’s CP portrait seems to err on the side of extremity, but quickly she’s a reality that demands to be accepted. Lee effortlessly creates a dense social context for his star-crossed lovers, from the bookending sojourns to the unforgiving police station to one of the great, discomfiting extended-family dinner scenes of all time. But Oasis is utterly beguiling because Lee, like many other percipient Asian filmmakers, is simply more attentive to his characters’ emotional tumult than the audience’s. No movie in recent memory has translated so clearly the secret language of lovers normally lost on the rest of the world.


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