Oasis Review

Director Lee Chang-dong is rapidly emerging as one of the most important directors in South Korea. Formerly a novelist, he successfully turned film-maker and made a real impact with his second film Peppermint Candy (2000), a powerful piece of realist cinema. His third film Oasis, has been an even greater success, winning five awards at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, including Best Director. Last December he was named Minister of Culture, an unprecedented appointment for an artist in Korea.

Hong Jong-du has just been released from prison where he has just done time for a hit and run driving incident where a man was killed. It is the middle of winter, but all he has to wear is the summer shirt he went in with. He finds that his family has moved and immediately gets himself into trouble with the police again when he eats at a restaurant without being able to pay. He visits the family of the man killed in the car accident, bringing a basket of fruit with him. Understandably, the man’s son and wife are less than happy to see him. While he is there, he meets the man’s daughter, Gong-ju, who suffers from cerebral palsy. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with the girl, much to the horror of his own and the girl’s family. Jong-du recognises instinctively (he is too dumb to rationalise it), that Gong-ju is someone as isolated from the world as he is himself – an outsider with no ability or means to interact with the real-world. Together they both create their own way of getting on, but it is a relationship that cannot be understood or tolerated by their respective families. With a previous conviction for attempted rape, Hong Jong-du’s motives are suspect.

What makes Oasis so remarkable and raises it above other similar “issue” films is the unsentimental manner in which it is handled. The director, who also wrote the script, doesn’t side-step any potentially controversial issues – political correctness, moral judgements, social attitudes to the disabled, disabled sexuality – all these topics are not only taken-on, but deftly handled in an intelligent, thought provoking and realistic way. The hazard of such an approach is that it is all to easy to preach and paint issues in a simplified black and white manner, lapsing, the way so many films on a similar subject do, into heavy-handed melodrama. Lee Chang-dong not only avoids these pit-falls, he deliberately raises and skilfully navigates through them, blurring the morality of the actions that are traditional in such roles.

It would be all to easy, for example, to depict Gong-ju as a special case, but in Oasis she is not a gifted savant – she is a disabled woman with an ordinary woman’s needs and desires that she unable to satisfy both through her disability and also through the attitudes of family and society towards her. She want to dress-up, wear make-up, fall in love, dine out - the everyday things everyone else takes for granted. The film successfully puts us into her mind, showing us without any sentimentality how she sees herself, how she copes and how her mind processes a world that she is unable to be fully a part of. Moon So-Ri’s performance is remarkable - a sensitive, brave and nuanced performance.

No less nuanced is the character and the performance of Sol Kyung-gu as Hong Jong-du. How much easier it would be for Gong-ju to be looked after by a sensitive, understanding person, able to see the real person behind her disability. Hong Jong-du defies every preconception you would have about such a character. His intentions are well-meaning, but he is uneducated and ill-mannered and expresses himself badly. He doesn’t make a good impression on anyone. His first encounter with the girl alone is really quite disturbing. Yet, he displays far more compassion and understanding than anyone else close to the girl. Once again however, the director doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. Deliberately blurring the issues, not only does he make his lead character something of an anti-hero, but the families cannot be easily dismissed as the traditional bad-guys. How sympathetic would you be if you had a disabled relative being courted by a man who not only killed her father through drunken driving, but also has a conviction for attempted rape?

With such challenging characters and situations, the aim of the film is not, as is so often the case, to give the audience a chance to feel superior and good about themselves, nor is it a cynically manipulative tear-jerker. Lee Chang-dong asks the viewer to examine their own prejudices and preconceptions and along the way he offers some truly astonishing insights as well as some little moments of pure cinematic magic and Dancer In The Dark-style flights from reality.

The DVD is currently available as a 2-disc Special Edition, housed, as Korean Special Editions usually are, in an amaray case within a box. English subtitles are presented for the feature, but there are no subtitles on the second disc which contains an abundance of extras. The film is also included in a Special Edition set of all three of the director’s films.

The picture quality is very good. It is a little bit soft at times, but this would be more to do with the low-lighting and natural-look photography. There are occasionally signs of discolouration in the grain, particularly on faces under low-light, but you'd need to look really close to see anything. There are one or two minor marks on the print, but otherwise, this is a fine image, presented anamorphically at 1.85:1.

There is little of exception to note about the soundtrack. As well as standard Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks, we also have a DTS soundtrack, but to be honest, the film doesn’t make great use of it – the sound is principally thought the centre speaker, although there is an ambient openness that is conveyed through the other speakers. There are no problems to speak of here.

English subtitles are provided, are removable and read very well without any obvious errors.

Disc 1 Extras
The only extra on the Disc 1 is the commentary track featuring the director, the assistant director and producer. This is in Korean only with no English subtitles.

Disc 2 Extras
The extras on Disc 2 are very well laid-out, but unfortunately, there will be little here to interest anyone who doesn’t speak Korean, as there are no subtitles of any kind. You can find more detail on the actual content of the extra material from the review of Oasis on V. "x" Naldi’s Korean Film Weekly.

01. Director Lee Chang Dong
Under the director section of the extras we have a director’s Profile, an Interview (12.35), a Making of (14.15) showing behind the scenes, rehearsals and the shooting of a number of scenes, with a Korean voice-over narration. The remainder of the features in this section – a Synopsis and Production Notes are in Korean text only.

02. Director of Photography
This features an Interview (8.44) with the director of photography, Choi Young-taek and also with Lee Chang-dong and a Profile.

03. Actor
This is a substantial section, containing a Profile, Interview (6.34), and a Making (9.17) for Moon So-ri, as well as a Profile, Interview (5.18), and a Making (9.51) for Sol Kyung-gu. The making of’s give you some idea of the difficulties the actors had playing such characters. All in Korean only with no subtitles.

04. Music
A Profile and an Interview (9.59) with Lee Jae-jin the composer.

05. Art Director
A Profile and an Interview (13.29) with Shin Jum-hui, the production designer.

06. Producer
A Profile and an Interview (8.38) with producer, Cho Min-cheol

07. Oasis Computer graphic (3.00)
At last, something that may be of interest for the non-Korean speaker, this feature shows the clever use of CG effects that fit seamlessly into the film.

08. Venice Film Festival (4.40)
Stills and footage of the cast and crew at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, receiving awards.

09. Preview of Oasis by Special Guest (2.37)
Showing the film’s special premiere in Korea.

10. Exclusive message(4.34)/(3.33)
Comments on the film. This is in Korean only with no subtitles.

11. Trailer (1.54)
Terrific trailer – you don’t need to speak Korean to enjoy this. Rather like the trailer for On The Occasion of Remembering The Turning Gate, this presents a song (‘Sad Movies’ by Sue Thompson) that gives an entirely different impression of what the film is actually about. It is still very effective, composed of still photos from the film.

12. Stills Gallery (4.06)
Behind the scenes and original stills photography accompanied by music from the film.

Oasis is a marvellous film, featuring probably the unlikeliest couple ever in a romantic drama. This could so easily have been manipulative, exploitative and sentimental, instead it is one of the most profoundly moving and intelligent films of recent years. I don’t think you’ll see a better film or DVD package this year.

The Korean Region 3 DVD can be purchased from YesAsia on the link on this page, but be warned that the link contains spoilers in an inaccurate summary of the film.

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