Friday, August 8, 2014

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Oasis

Oasis (2002)
Directed by: Chang-dong Lee.
Written by: Chang-dong Lee.
Starring: Kyung-gu Sol (Jong-du Hong), So-ri Moon (Gong-ju Han), Nae-sang Ahn (Jong-Il Hong), Seung-wan Ryoo (Jong-Sae Hong), Kwi-Jung Chu (Jong-Sae's Wife), Jin-gu Kim (Mrs. Hong), Byung-ho Son (Sang-Shik Han), Ga-hyun Yun (Sang-Shik's Wife).

Lee Chang-dong is probably the least known great director working in the world today. Festival audiences know his films, but in North America, his films haven’t really made a ripple outside of those festivals. His masterpiece, Secret Sunshine (2007) was one of the very best films I have ever seen at the Toronto Film Festival – and one of the least known masterpieces of the 2000s. It took almost 4 years for it to get any sort of theatrical release in America – then it was a one week run in New York before Criterion put out the DVD addition (and if you haven’t seen Secret Sunshine – I urge you to do so RIGHT NOW). His follow-up film, Poetry, which I saw at TIFF in 2010, did get a theatrical release in North America the following year – but for some reason didn’t make a dent in the speciality release market. Like Secret Sunshine, it is a brilliant film (not quite as good, but close), and deserves to be seen by far more people in North America. A lot has (justly) been made about new Korean cinema in the past decade, but as good as Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) and Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Thirst) are (and no, I didn’t forget Kim-Ki Duk – he’s a talentless hack), to me Lee Chang-dong is the best Korean director working today.

Before he made Secret Sunshine and Poetry, Lee Chang-dong made Oasis in 2002, which for whatever reason, I never checked out before now. Like his later films, Oasis takes on challenging subject matter, that in lesser hands (like say Kim-Ki Duk) may seem exploitive, but in Lee’s hands is intelligent and sensitive. Oasis is a movie about two social outcasts – for two radically different reasons – who really do fall in love with each other, even if no one around them can see why.

We first meet Hong (Kyung-gu Soi) as he is released from prison. He spent a few years there because of a drunk driving accident that killed a man. While he was inside, his family moved and changed their phone number without telling him – and it’s easy to see why. Hong is one of those people who doesn’t seem to “get” normal social protocol – he stands too close to you, assumes an oddly familiar report with people he just met and says wildly inappropriate things. He has no ambitions in life, and is wildly irresponsible. He may well have some sort of mental disorder, but if he does, it has certainly gone untreated. Despite their best efforts, Hong eventually tracks down his family, who begrudgingly welcome him back.

For some reason, Hong thinks it would be appropriate for him to visit the family of the man he killed in that drunk driving accident. Rather than go over to their apartment solemn and begging for forgiveness, he shows up with a fruit basket and acts as if he is an old friend. The family is undeniably incensed, and ask him to leave. But before he does, he meets Han (So-ri Moon), the daughter of the man he killed, who has severe cerebral palsy. Her brother and sister-in-law, have had enough of taking care of her, so they are moving out of the apartment they share with her – leaving her in the hands of social services and neighbors, neither of whom seem to care that much about her. Hong and Han develop a relationship after that inappropriate first encounter, and the even more inappropriate second encounter – when he tries to rape her.

Oasis is really about that private world that two people in love go to together. This is even more profound for these two people, because neither of them “fit” anywhere else – both their families wish to be rid of them, because it’s too much of a “burden” on them. I have heard people say this is a critique of Korean society, which casts off the “undesirables”, but the same could be said for any society. Lee makes this world the two go to real, with several flights of fancy – from our first introduction to Han, who is using a mirror to make “lights” on the ceiling, that we see as beautiful doves, and two occasions where Han seems to be “cured”, her body no longer crippled and twisted, her speech normal, as she is happy with Hong. Hong is certainly not a “good” guy, but he is the only one who seems to understand Han. Of course, this world cannot last – and both families are aghast at their “relationship” – first when Hong brings Han to a family gathering, which brings out dark family secrets, and then the misunderstanding with her that sets in motion the film’s climax.

That climax is the weakest part of the film. I’m not sure if Lee didn’t know how to end the film or what, because the last half hour of the movie (which like Secret Sunshine and Poetry runs well more than two hours, but unlike them, doesn’t have the plot to sustain such a running time) doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, and worse doesn’t even seem logical. Surely at some point the truth would have come out, but it doesn’t here.

That doesn’t mean Oasis is not a wonderful movie. For the most part it is – highlighted but two excellent performances, and a great screenplay by Lee that sees past their outward appearances and views them as real people. This is a challenging, thoughtful film that despite its subject matter is never in bad taste or exploitative. If Lee had figured out a better way to end his film, Oasis may well rank alongside Secret Sunshine and Poetry as a masterwork. But just be a very good film with a flawed ending isn’t bad.

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