Having looked to the modernization of his country for his debut feature Green Fish and then expanding further with governmental issues set across a twenty year period of economic and political change with Peppermint Candy, director Lee Chang-dong continued to explore relevant social themes with his third and most assured outing Oasis in 2002.
Recently released from prison having served a sentence for vehicular manslaughter, Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) returns home only to find that he has been disowned by his family. Finding it difficult to adjust back into society, he sets out looking for work, but his volatile behaviour and short attention span continues to hold him back.
When curiosity gets the better of him, Jong-du goes to visit the family of the man he killed a few years ago in the accident. The family ask him to leave but later he returns only to find the man's daughter, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri) who suffers from cerebral palsy and lives alone with her dreams and fantasies; her family paying her neighbour to come over and take care of her at regular daily intervals. Jong-du quickly develops an attraction toward Gong-ju, becoming fascinated by her until he can no longer control his urges, leading him to carry out an attempted rape. During the assault she faints, causing him to panic and hastily flee the apartment. However, now guilt-ridden he goes back to see her and despite her initial worried reaction, Gong-ju slowly warms to her former assailant. Thus begins an unlikely, forbidden love affair that will take these people to the places that they have only dreamt about.
Whether by accident or through sheer learning Oasis has a quality that neither of Lee’s previous films had: a perfect narrative, one which strips everything down to the essentials, whilst retaining the director’s greatest strength as a film maker by eschewing the melodramatic and dealing with issues and emotions in a realistic, non-pandering manner. Here, through his unmistakable cynicism - albeit slightly more toned down - he creates a thought-provoking tale that asks if we, as a whole, can let go of our prejudices and make change for the better. Oasis truly shows Lee as a growing director, who with each subsequent outing has successfully managed to topple expectations; his literary expertise this time around in pitting an antagonistic society against an all too real underdog sees him speak his voice with so much more clarity and heartfelt valour than ever before.
It’s a sad fact of life, irrespective of any outside organizations, that we as a society have learned to attach a stigma to anyone who looks and speaks differently than what is considered “normal”, and the director does absolutely nothing to shy away from exposing such apathy. Lee’s third film is a well constructed tale which methodically sets up its agenda, starting off by contrasting the lives of its twin protagonists as individually perceived by those around them: the onlookers’ ignorance and lack of understanding failing to afford them with the kind of knowledge that there’s always a little something special hidden behind the veil. Taking us into lives of the disabled girl and her ex-convict boyfriend-to-be, the director then turns the tables to skilfully weave a story as seen through their own eyes. The symbolism which became integral to his previous features also aids Oasis to tremendous effect, this time in the form of a painting which Gong-ju proudly displays on her wall; a picture that provides her with an escape from the bleak reality of an urban scrawl that both she and Jong-du inhabit, allowing her to imagine beautiful images from the confines of her rundown apartment. Much like everyone else in life it’s through these that she has real dreams and desires: to be happy; to fall in love; to find her own perfect little oasis.
With said oasis found in Jong-du, the film brings into play some interesting debate - that here we have a man guilty of attempting to rape a woman who can barely fend for herself, who is now longing for her to provide him with the compassion he so desperately needs. Indeed morals and ethics are not without question and the depiction of Gong-ju’s jaded family is certainly something of consideration. But Lee implores us to form an understanding of where these individuals are coming from. In the past the director has portrayed his protagonists rather ambiguously, preferring to make his point known through them being ciphers, which naturally makes it difficult for one to become attached. With Oasis, however, it’s as if we’re finally seeing well rounded individuals, who despite their differences in appearances and mannerisms actually reflect some of the best qualities in all of us. Lee juxtaposes the mundane and sad existence of those ill-fitted to judge with that of a poignant partnership of star-crossed lovers, who have chosen to take a leap of faith in seeking solace through a form of communication that only they presently understand. More importantly he does so with respect to his subject and the viewer, avoiding commonplace mistakes which might otherwise border on pretension. Presenting some wonderfully creative and abstract scenes, realized with sharp accuracy he masterfully blurs fantasy and reality to provide a surreal and often charming journey shared between two misunderstood people.
And yet despite such taboo subject matter and social decay Oasis is about as far from depressing as you could imagine. Though it tells it like it is and teaches us to breed hope and not be so quick to point fingers, it injects itself with a reasonable dose of humour, which often helps to break down some of the more difficult situations that the two romantics face. They enjoy and laugh at each other; their wayward outlook on life brings them even closer, and the film stands on how well they react to their environment. Moreover it’s the career-defining performances of Moon So-ri and Sol Kyung-gu (both returning from 1999’s Peppermint Candy) that sells the entire piece. Sol is perfectly nuanced, squeezing sympathy out of an individual who ordinarily shouldn’t be all that likeable but whose plight is strong: a man who finds that even through the worst of times, through one’s own self-destructive attitude, that there’s still hope to cling onto in facing up to one’s responsibilities. By contrast Moon So-ri is no less astounding, completely losing herself in the role of Gong-ju. She’s clearly a woman respectful of and dedicated to her craft, who understands her subject and carries it out with the kind of sympathetic conviction that few actors ever do. The way she drifts in and out of reality in detailing Gong-ju’s mindset is spellbinding, not to mention unsurpassed; this isn’t a silly-voiced, cartoon-ish caricature carried out with the hopes of an award nomination - it’s as real as day. Moon found herself emotionally drained for all her efforts but the reward is certainly sweet. Without a shadow of a doubt one of the most amazing performances ever captured on film.
Third Window Films impresses with its progressively enhanced anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation. The transfer looks nigh on identical to the R3 CJ Entertainment release of six years ago. Lee Chang-dong seems more interested in portraying his scenes in as natural a light as possible; therefore you’ll find quite a few dimly lit interior shots with black levels suffering the most (see screen grab 2), while outdoor scenes look perfectly fine, with no real manipulation to colour boosting; although I do suspect a little contrast tweaking here. The image is a tad soft overall - I’d have loved to have seen just how much better Blu could have made this - and there are spots of dust, but it makes for solid viewing regardless. Comparison shots between Third Window and CJ Entertainment below (Third Window on top):
The R2 releases dispenses with the DTS and 5.1 offerings found on the Korean release, in favour of a simple DD2.0 track. But the simplicity of the track works in the film’s favour. This is a picture which resonates simply on the two lead performers and sticks to a rather low-key approach. The centre channels handle dialogue clearly, while rears pick up on ambient effects and distribute the score evenly.
The only bonus feature included on the disc is a Making Of piece (30:54). However, this is one of the better behind-the-scenes looks out there. Not just a random selection of footage as normally seen on Korean releases, this proves to be a genuinely fascinating insight into what was a difficult shoot. Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri put into detail how they approached their respective roles, and what challenges faced them throughout shooting. Lee Chang-dong also provides a lot of interesting information, and comes across exactly as the kind of passionate man you’d expect him to be. There’s some great behind-the-scenes footage, featuring the cast having moments of fun, and if you needed proof of how hard Moon So-ri worked then look no further.