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South Korea 2002


Lee Chang-dong

Sol Kyung-gu
Moon So-ri
Ahn Nae-sang
Ryoo Seung-wan
Chu Kwi-Jung
Kim Jin-gu
Son Byung-ho
Yun Ga-hyun

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Story: Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) has run over a man while being drunk and gets into prison for two and a half years. However, his family strangely isn't waiting for him in front of the prison building the day he is released. After he is brought to a police station again because he couldn't pay the bill at a restaurant he is picked up by his brother. Jong-du is supposed to become a part of society again, but his family isn't really happy about him being back. Jong-du is no easy guy to handle on a social level, yet he visits the family of the man he has run over because he wants to make sure that they are doing fine. When he gets there he meets the physically disabled woman Gong-ju (Moon So-ri) who instantly arouses his interest. Gong-ju's brother doesn't want to have him around, though, and kicks him out of the apartment. Still, later on Jong-du forces his way into the apartment of the disabled woman that her family doesn't really take care of and builds up some ties of friendship. Even though this relationship doesn't start under the best circumstances feelings of love blossom between the two...

Review: Lee Chang-dong is probably one of Korea's most respected directors and also has a good reputation outside his home country among film festival goers. His art-house movies are defined by a very quiet tone and a cold distance towards the events on screen that are supposed to nip any melodrama in the bud. Former writer Lee without a doubt has stories to tell that should be heard or seen, but his narration is incredibly dry. Maybe this might work well in his books, but as in his former movie "Peppermint Candy" or his later "Secret Sunshine" this builds up an unnecessary barrier that makes getting access to his films quite difficult. It's not any different with "Oasis" and this is especially fatal as we are told a romantic story here that has the emotional warmth of refrigerator. No wonder that the drama can never unfold his full potential. Therefore, Lee Chang-dong is still, and despite the fact that his works may have a certain importance you can't deny, one of Korea's most overrated directors.

Nevertheless, I could be the only one with this opinion. So if you are already a Lee Chang-dong fan you maybe shouldn't read on because otherwise I might lose another loyal reader of my hand full of visitors. Anyway, you can't deny that Lee shots his movies with a dreariness that makes it difficult to enter the world he creates. There are only a few bursts of fantasy that can brighten things up a bit. For example, Gong-ju likes to play with light and the reflected rays of sunlight at the cealing suddenly becomes alive and fly around in her room as butterflies. But moments like that are the exception. Most of the time we follow the quiet camera movements of the director who captures his pictures in dreary tones of grey while giving some insight into the life of two exceptional individuals. There is no fancy camera work and there is also almost no soundtrack, everything feels sterile and the inner life of the characters also is more hinted at than it is worked out in a script.

However, the characters bring us to one of the movie's impressive strengths: the actors. Sol Kyung-gu ("Peppermint Candy", "Silmido", "Rikidozan") really is a great actor who seemingly can fit into every role. His portrayal in "Oasis" is very subtle and in a credible fashion he manages to play a man who has a whole lot of weaknesses and actually isn't to be counted among the good guys while the viewer can still sympathize with him. His first meeting with Gong-ju almost ends in a raping and later on he assaults another woman so that there is always something unpredictable about him. Another thing that never really becomes clear is if he simply is a loner who isn't integrated into society or maybe is slightly mentally handicapped. What's a fact is that he doesn't want to take responsibility in his life and oftentimes isn't aware of the consequences of his actions. His family actually was quite happy with him being in prison because things really aren't easy with him around and this is also something we can understand thanks to Sol's multilayered portrayal.

Absolutely fantastic, though, is the acting achievement of Moon So-ri ("A Good Lawyer's Wife", "The President's Barber"). Never before have you seen such a great portrayal of a disabled person. She is imprisoned in a body that doesn't work according to her will, her fingers are strangely twisted, she has muscle spasms, one of her eyes always movies like if she is cross-eyed and her face is distorted in a way that you can't really recognize the actress anymore. Moon So-ri is actually quite pretty but you can't tell in "Oasis". Apart from a few moments in which Gong-ju stands up from her wheelchair and dances around her boyfriend as if being a completely normal person. Those fantasy elements in which we become part of Gong-ju's world of imagination are used well-directed and economically so that they become even the more effective and also make us aware what kind of a great performance Moon is in fact delivering. The movie also isn't afraid of touching the subject of sexuality and disabled people which then again leads us to one weakness of the film. The ending.

It's simple as that: The ending doesn't work out for me. Gong-ju is in fact capable of making herself understood just not in stressful situations. Therefore, the misunderstanding towards the end is absolutely unbelievable and should have been clarified a few hours later at the latest. Here Lee Chang-dong seems to have worked in drama in his movie just for drama's sake. Still, what's praiseworthy is Lee's look at Korean society and its impotency to deal with disabled persons or integrate them into society. This may be an international problem but apparently even the more in Korea. It's still questionable why Lee has to tell his story with such cold pictures and within lengthy 132 minutes. But maybe this is simply a question of perspective as I have also heard of viewers who have cried their eyes out watching this film. "Oasis" couldn't touch me a bit, though. The interesting subject of the film and the breathtakingly great performances of the actors force me to give a recommendation nonetheless.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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