Watching Lee Chang-Dong’s third film, 2002’s Oasis (Oasisu or ????), was an interesting experience because a good portion of the film, notably its last third, is propelled by what is known as the Dumbest Possible Action trope that plagues most Hollywood fare. But, the first two thirds of the 132 minute film is, narratively, an interesting exercise in how to make a repulsive human being seem passably decent. That is because, while the main character certainly has psycho-emotional problems, he is not, as many critics have labeled him, a retard. A sociopath? Possibly, and one with diminished mental capacity, but not a retard. He is simply unable to fit in or act normally in routine social situations, and has a very poor ability to make reasoned choices. This is not retardation, save for in the social graces.
The film opens with the winter release from prison of an underdressed Hong Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-Gu), who finds that all his family members have left their old neighborhood in the two and a half years he was incarcerated, for manslaughter in a hit and run drunk driving accident his older brother, Jong-Il (Ahn Nae-Sang), who shares a tiny apartment with his wife (Chu Gui-Jeong) and mother (Kim Jin-Jin), actually caused. The apartment buildings of the city- presumably Seoul, are reminiscent of housing projects all over the world, such as Lefrak City in New York. However, Jong-Du volunteered to take the blame for the accident, since he had served time earlier for other crimes- attempted rape and assault, while the older brother had a wife and child. He is soon arrested for skipping out on a restaurant tab, and this reunites him, via the police, with his family. He gets a job as a moped deliveryman of food, but soon loses that job when crashes as he goes joyriding, at night, following a film crew. His younger brother, Jong-Sae (Ryoo Seung-Wan), hires him at his auto repair shop, where he again joyrides in a customer’s car, without a driver’s license.
This is when he also seeks out the family of man his brother killed. Seeing him, the man’s son rages at the presumed killer, but is also moving out, and leaving his spasmodic and cerebral palsy afflicted sister, Gong-Ju (Moon So-Ri), behind to be cared for by neighbors (in a plot point reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s classic 1965 film Repulsion). They do a lousy job, and the brother lives it up on the ill girl’s government stipend. But, his brief visit finds Jong-Du smitten with the ill girl. He then sneaks into the apartment, and attempts to rape her, but she passes out. Idiotically, he leaves his phone number in her mirror. The girl calls him, for, despite the rape attempt, he has told her she is pretty.
This begins their romance (she calls him General and he calls her Princess) that is realistically and brutally shown (unlike many infamously bad 1970s television movie of the weeks with overtly similar plot points), as they suffer discrimination from others (a scene where they are clearly snubbed by employees and patrons in a restaurant is reminiscent of such scenes in Luchino Visconti’s 1960 film classic, Rocco And His Brothers), and shunning from his own family when he brings Gong-Ju to a family outing at a restaurant. The brother who actually killed the girl’s father feels Jong-Du is trying to get back at him. In a touching scene, the girl is frightened by tree branch shadows at night, which fall on a wall tapestry of an oasis (hence the film’s title), and, by talking to her, Hong make sit go away. There are several flights of fancy, from Gong-Ju’s POV, where she makes shimmering light into butterflies, and can walk and talk normally, and where they have a visit from Indians and a baby elephant. After time passes, and we see Jong-Du tenderly clothe and feed his girlfriend, one night, the couple decide to engage in consensual sex, and, ironically, after getting away with the attempted rape, when Jong-Du is found in bed with Gong-Ju, her brother returns, finds them in bed, and he and neighbors hold the ‘rapist.’
Here is where the Dumbest Possible Action trope takes over, for all Gong-Ju need do is let everyone know it was consensual, but, instead, he escapes custody, goes back to the apartment complex, and cuts down the tree limbs he know will scare Gong-Ju. When she appears at the police station, she still says nothing, and has a fit. Jong-Du goes to jail, and the film ends with him reading a letter to her in voiceover.
As mentioned, the screenplay, penned by the director, tanks near the end, and the film would be better by losing 20 or so minutes of Dumbest Possible Action in the last third, but the strong acting by the two leads saves the film, and enlivens even their Dumbest Possible Action scenes, as does the director’s insistent non-saccharine approach. The supporting cast is also top notch, and the scene of the family get together, wherein we finally learn that Jong-Du did not kill Gong-Ju’s garbageman father, but Jong-Il did, is terrific- a blend of originality and melodrama that works on both scores. Yeong-Taek Choi’s cinematography is nothing special, nor is the film’s scoring, by Yiruma. The film is shown with white unbordered subtitles, and no English language dubbing track.
Nonetheless, and despite the Dumbest Possible Action negatives, Oasis succeeds, as a film, and work of art. It is neither stunning nor brave, nor any of the over the top descriptions blurb-whoring critics labeled it, but it is good, if not great, cinema. Sometimes, that is enough.