Criterion Prediction #32: Oasis, by Alexander Miller
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Ahn Nae-sang, Ryoo Seung-wan, Kwi Jung-Chu
Synopsis: Jong-du, a dimwitted social outcast, is recently released from prison after serving time for vehicular manslaughter. Impulsive and childish Jong-du is abandoned by most of his family except for a sympathetic brother who finds him work delivering Chinese food. In his travels, he finds the relatives of the person he killed in his alleged hit-and-run accident only to discover they’re abandoning their sibling, Gong-ju, who has cerebral palsy, leaving her with minimal care so they can collect on her disability benefits. Both of these outcasts find solace in each other’s company and they fall in love.
Critique: While Oasis sounds like a glorified Lifetime original, the film is actually the check that Hollywood can’t write. Instead of the wimpy, homogenized “message movies” that pollute award season, Lee Chang-dong achieves the simple feat of directing a movie that humanizes taboo subject matter by being intelligent and compassionate. Before overstaying my welcome on the film criticism soapbox, I’ll take time point out that Oasis is not an easy watch for a few understandably unnerving reasons. The “protagonist” Jong-du is painfully oblivious, prone to frustratingly stupid actions that are at times repellent. Have you ever read a news report about an incredibly dumb criminal and think “how can somebody be so stupid?” that’s Jong-du in a nutshell. While his compromised mental state is never identified, we can gather that Jong-du is not of sound mind. Perhaps the treatment of the character is a reflection of society’s inability to treat what could be sociopathy?
A common criticism of verite/realism is that it leaves the viewer with no one to root for but this movie isn’t asking us to cheer anyone on because it’s the story we are invested in and the emotional gravitas is powerful enough to fuel what could have been a compromised narrative. While Jong-du is a complicated character brought to life by Sol Kyung-gu (from the Public Enemy series, and Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy) the laurels go to Moon So-ri for respectfully portraying a character with cerebral palsy, whose escapist fantasies sporadically come to life with superlative effect.
Oasis is a love story that functions on the merits of convincing storytelling thanks to a director committed to intelligent and mature content. It looks at people who are maligned by society and what makes this story so potent is that no one is preaching any idealism nor is it a sounding board for any sociological grandstanding, just strong direction and performances.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Criterion’s release of Secret Sunshine was a special occasion, being the first South Korean film in their catalog. One of these days I’ll have to upgrade that title seeing as their Blu-ray is leaps and bounds better than my current VCD. Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project we have Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, aside from the bizarre fourth wall break in the finale it’s a great movie, but that’s it from a region that is producing some of the most fascinating and polarizing works of cinema. There’s a plethora of great South Korean films that are often overshadowed by the more graphic and vivid thrillers from Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, both of whom I think are brilliant, but it seems like there’s less attention on dramatic realism from filmmakers like Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk. Since Secret Sunshine seems like a successful item for Criterion chances are Oasis would find admiration and a wider audience if given the Criterion treatment.
This might seem like a nitpick but the cover art on the Life Size Films DVD is incredibly stupid. When you have a couple embracing on a cloudy horizon with doves flying overhead, and a tagline that reads “love knows” under the title, you just want to laugh. It is so bad it automatically makes anyone who supports the film an instant apologist because every time you recommend it you have to support the argument with “just ignore the terrible cover, it’s actually a great movie”. But at the end of the day, Oasis deserves a spine number based on its merits as a film that is intelligent and challenging. If we see more Lee in the collection, chances are it might go to his more accessible Peppermint Candy, a close contender for this week’s selection, but Oasis is hard to overlook. Then again, who says we can’t have both?