Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis is, at first blush, one of those occasional miracles that approach leapingly scandalous material with a superhuman charity and somehow dodge charges of tastelessness. In the end, it’s a daring heartbreaker. Pedestrian-realist romances with stringently tragic spinouts have emerged as one of the most original and affecting new genres of the tentatively U.S.-distributed Korean new wave, and Lee’s movie, released by a fledgling boutique company but loaded with five Venice Film Festival awards, trumps the competition with little more than shadows on a wall.
Employing a loose, grainy, post-Godardian vision of cramped urban coexistence, Oasis begins with Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu), himself a rarely observed breed of movie varmint: Adenoidal, impulsive, fresh from a prison stint for drunk-driving manslaughter, he seems at first to be either retarded or sociopathic—in one of several cataclysmic restaurant visits, the hapless parolee tries to convince the waitstaff to let him leave his shoes in lieu of a giant meal tab. Soon, it’s apparent that Jong-du is simply one of those people: He stands too close to strangers, never says the right thing, and can’t help defiling social norms—he even goes to visit the family of the old man he was convicted of killing, expecting to amiably apologize.
He’s cast out, of course—even his own family avoids him—but not before he sets his sights on the victim’s daughter, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a girl with severe cerebral palsy. We’re introduced to her in a swoony indication of the movie’s contrapuntal nature: The perfectly real white dove we see fluttering around Gong-ju’s apartment turns out to be, in a blithe cut, the sunlight she’s shakily reflecting from a handheld mirror. Throughout, Lee’s light-footed realism gives way to moments of matter-of-fact lyrical sorcery, most often when, as a wickedly unlikely romance blooms between these two misfits, Moon suddenly relaxes her character’s harshly twisted deformity, springs out of her wheelchair, and dances. Somehow, the subjective abandonment of Gong-ju’s confining physicality—in effect, allowing us to see the distance between Moon’s lovely, vibrant self and her damn-the-torpedoes imitation of disablement—only brings us in closer, refocusing our gaze on the woman rather than the deformity. You begin to look forward to those moments, as when Jong-du is carrying her on a subway platform and you see her hands relax, abruptly able to hold him in return.
Oasis displays astonishing confidence: Jong-du’s first reaction to Gong-ju is to try to rape her, a taboo-lacerating scene that meets its comeuppance later when the couple’s first consensual encounter, itself a tearjerking marvel, is found out and confronted by their outraged (but covertly amoral) families. Just as ballsy, Moon’s CP portrait seems to err on the side of extremity, but quickly she’s a reality that demands to be accepted. Lee effortlessly creates a dense social context for his star-crossed lovers, from the bookending sojourns to the unforgiving police station to one of the great, discomfiting extended-family dinner scenes of all time. But Oasis is utterly beguiling because Lee, like many other percipient Asian filmmakers, is simply more attentive to his characters’ emotional tumult than the audience’s. No movie in recent memory has translated so clearly the secret language of lovers normally lost on the rest of the world.