Oasis (2002)

First published by Little White Lies

“You have to be responsible for your actions. You have to fit in with society, be aware of how others see you.”

Or so Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) is told near the start of Oasis, and it seems, at least to begin with, that his older brother has a point. First seen dressed in summer clothes in the middle of winter, Jong-du is marked from the start by his inappropriate cheeriness, his constant leg jiggling and nose picking, his impetuous forwardness, and his multiple criminal convictions, as a mentally challenged misfit – and his family is clearly aggrieved to see him back out of prison.

Just as unhappy is the family of the man whose death in a hit-and-run incident put Jong-du behind bars. But the newly released Jong-du takes a special interest in the dead man’s severely palsied daughter Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), and after letting himself into her apartment and giving her flowers, he sexually assaults her. Contrary to expectation, this leads to a furtive fairytale romance between the lonely social outcasts, who together find an oasis in each other’s company – until eventually the shadows of reality intrude.

The film’s naturalism is occasionally infused with flashes of magical realism (CG doves and butterflies, pictures come to life, fantasies of mobility) to remind us of the rich inner life of a ‘Princess’ trapped in her own physical disability. Like all the best studies of otherness, writer/director Lee Chang-dong holds up a mirror to the ugliness of ‘normality’, as Jong-du’s ingenuous rape and solicitous courtship of Gong-ju are compared and contrasted with the way the two supposedly respectable families more straightforwardly exploit, abuse or simply ignore their vulnerable wards. It is a touching, if uncomfortable, depiction of conservative Korean society as the danger from which misfits sometimes need protection (rather than the other way round).

Anton Bitel