“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”
I had the privilege several days ago of watching a film that shook the foundations of what I had previously believed to be the true about the possibilities and limitations of not only film, but of art. The film, clasped with grubby hand in a small Chinese video store only because we needed a third title to fulfill the arbitrary $10-for-three movies quota, and then, too, only because of the abrupt, providential monsoon outside had kept us inside the video store for long enough so that we chose a second movie, was Lee Chang-Dong’s Oasis.
Early in the film, after an uncompromising portrayal of the attempted rape of a girl who suffers from cerebral palsy, we see her playing paper-scissors-rock with her assailant. The juxtaposition is shocking, not simply because of the levity of the latter in contrast with the brutality of the former, but because we then find out the image of the two of them playing paper-scissors-rock is the capricious, imagined longing of the victim of the attempted rape. And then we understand: despite the intense trauma of the attempted rape, this is the first time anyone has related to her as anything other than a cripple; the first time she has felt like anything but a burden. It is the first time in her life she has ever been desired, as a woman. That this means more to her than the fact that he tried to rape her is inadmissible, and it is these kinds of inadmissible truths that are at the centre of Lee’s film.
Oasis follows the relationship between these two untouchables: Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu), a socially oblivious misfit who has just been released from prison; and Gong-Ju (So-ri Moon), for all intents and purposes a mute paraplegic because of her cerebral palsy. Set against the backdrop of contemporary urban Korea, the film is an examination of an uncompassionate society driven by self-interest, where the necessities of life provide a moral justification for the absence of love. Jong-du’s younger brother callously tells Jong-du to never disturb his life again, after Jong-du has to be bailed out of custody for not having the money to pay his food bill, and Gong-Ju’s family abandon her in an empty apartment, paying the neighbours to bring her food each day. Later, Gong-Ju’s younger brother takes her to his house, a seeming act of compassion that is almost immediately revealed as a ruse for her brother to afford housing in an apartment that is meant to be reserved for those with disabilities. Right after the housing inspector sees Gong-Ju ‘living’ there, her younger brother returns her to her empty apartment. Those who are supposed to love her most resent her except when it serves their own interests.
Into this, enter Jong-du, who meets Gong-Ju by chance when he brings a condolence basket to Gong-Ju’s brother-in-law, the son of the garbage collector Jong-du killed while driving recklessly. Jong-du’s cluelessness to the inappropriateness of such a gesture is at the centre of his character: a happy-go-lucky loafer who is oblivious to social convention and what society expects of him, going only, and always, with what he feels. Following the attempted rape, which is aborted when Gong-Ju falls unconscious and in the process awakens Jong-Du to the horrific nature of his actions, the two forge a careful relationship. As they grow closer to each other, Jong-du becomes more and more responsible out of his yearning to look after Gong-Ju, and we learn Gong-Ju is able to speak and that her mental faculties are not only fully intact, but full of imaginary fecundity. With remarkable tenderness, the film immerses us into the thoughts and feelings of both characters, casting their abnormality as a function of the prejudices of society, in which we as audience are initially, and shamefully, complicit. “It might be harsh,” Jong-du’s sister-in-law tells him, “but our family was so much better without you.” Because of their disabilities, those around them have ceased to view Gong-ju and Jong-du as human beings that have fears and desires, that become anxious or have self-esteem, that hurt and need love; in finding each other, and being able to see each other as human beings rather than social abnormalities, they find a fragile happiness. It is what these characters have to endure to maintain this meager, ordinary happiness—pitting the assumptions and expectations of an uncompassionate society against their simple relationship—that drives the film to its heartbreaking climax and conclusion.
Despite what may seem like unremittingly heavy subject matter, Oasis is a tender film of inexplicable beauty. Full of compassion, it never treats its characters as objects of pity, nor at any point attempts to impress upon us the weightiness or worthiness of its content or message. On the contrary, the film brims with deeply felt exuberance, allowing us more and more into Jong-Du and Gong-Ju’s fanciful imagined reveries, shared and imbued with childish innocence. Directed in a handheld style with a tendency for uninterrupted long takes, the obstinate naturalism of the film serves its emotional and thematic concerns wonderfully. Reminiscent of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the camera is incessantly subjective, making it impossible for us not to feel what the characters are feeling, but always remaining aware of the broader societal implications. In combination with performances are harrowing in their devotion to the truth of their characters, the actors laying their souls bare, their hearts beating in every frame, Lee’s direction never relinquishes the conviction that the events of the film are real, and as such, neither do we.
Oasis does not deal in predictable catharses, but in painful truths that ask us to examine our own ways of viewing the world, and how we treat those around us. At the centre of the film is the idea of love and forgiveness, and how often we repudiate these gifts of grace, instead conforming to the prejudices by which society defines our relations with others. In many ways, the social dysfunctions and disabilities of the characters act as a metaphor for our own existence: although there is a suggestion that Jong-du might be slightly mentally retarded, this is never directly addressed in the film, just as Gong-Ju’s cerebral palsy is never specifically labeled, in order to allow us to read their impairments as our own. We all possess ‘disabilities’, whether they are prejudices and constraints dictated by society or our own insecurities that prevent us from expressing ourselves truthfully and loving unreservedly. In showing a relationship between two people whose experiences are probably the furthest they could be from my own, the film spoke ineffably to me about what it means to be human.
I often resent, in reviews and criticism, and to the extent that I’ve conceded even in this review, the tendency to try to explain the merits of a film through analysing its construction, from its directorial choices to the editing to the performances of the actors. In doing so, we undermine its miracle, because such explanations do not come close to adequately explaining how, or why a work can affected one so. In writing about Oasis, I am tempted to borrow A.O. Scott’s proclamation in his review of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Three Times, that “this is why cinema exists,” because on a very personal level, this film embodies the inarticulable reason I watch films. But cinema exists for many different people, and for each of those people, different reasons: some seek spectacle and escapism, others, to galvanize political thought and incite action, and others still, like myself, to fill a hole in their hearts. All are equally valid. The greatest praise I can give for this film then, is that it made me reconsider not just the possibilities, but the role, of art. It made me realise that the hole in my heart cannot be filled by a film, but only through filling the void that exists in others; through love, not according to the constraints of society, but fully, selflessly, and unequivocally. That a film can do this is nothing less than a miracle.