Friday, 29 July 2011

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Oasis [Review]


Opinion: A-

One of Lee Chang-Dong's great earlier works, Oasis features outstanding cast performance by both its male and female lead and again scores on focused issues of questioning moral and the society's habit of discrimination. However, as much as Lee produced yet another a bold film of expression, it was comparatively a linear film didn't provide as much food for thought as his later films (reviewed earlier here) did.


Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu), a young man just out of prison for manslaughter, is a social misfit: fidgety, snuffling, laughing inappropriately, without a super ego. When released, he calls on the family of the victim; they send him away, but not before he has seen Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a young woman disabled severely by cerebral palsy.


If you'd been following my sharing on Lee's films, it goes backwards in chronological order as it begins with his latest film Poetry. The choice of order has partly to do with the retrospective screening schedule, which I believe at the end of it is a good perspective for understanding Lee's films better as well as a beautiful way of ending the retrospective with a fitting film Peppermint Candy (which will be the last retrospective film to be shared very soon!)

Apologies for the much delay between the previous film Secret Sunshine and this, Lee's films really require much after thoughts in order to better appreciate and analyse beyond what it relays to the audience at first glance. My previous statement is very much an admiration of Lee's film-making as I believe he hasn't made any bad films so far and instead all fared critically well (which is reflected in my grading of his films here).

**Advisory: Potential spoilers ahead**

Oasis is introduced as a canvas of elephants and joyous Indians who dance to their delight, which is depicted in a dream sequence pictured above. Later, it is also revealed that our female protagonist Gong-ju is frightened nightly by the shadows cast upon this very canvas by the tree branches outside her window.

I didn't see a deeper meaning to this until recently.

This film is very much a tale of how two misfits (Jong-du and Gong-ju) try to find an oasis  (paradise/joyous grounds) in the very society that outcasts them as non-complying freaks. Perhaps you can draw references to the above scenario now. Not that they became social rejects by choice, the innocence and ignorance of Jong-du's personality along with Gong-ju's illness pose an irrefutable threat to a viable mode of communication between them and the others surrounding them.

Not that they don't communicate, just that the way they do isn't absorbed and received well by others.

If you'd ask me, I'd say that nobody wants to communicate with them at all. So it isn't their lack of expressions to the others (in fact, they are so full of life and animated in the film - they didn't remain silent in demeanour). But when they're confronted by accusations of prejudice, they chose to remain silent and only acted in futile expressions of sorrow and frustration.

They know in their hearts that it is pointless to even try and explain themselves in defense.

The final act where Jong-du breaks out of police detention to hack down the branches outside Gong-ju's apartment is his rawest form of retaliation and expression of his true intentions towards the society. Not only was it an act of true love for Gong-ju, it also showed relentless attitude towards the oasis in mind even if it was only possible just for Gong-ju to enjoy it. In appreciation, there's nothing much Gong-ju could do (you can really sense both their helplessness here) except blasting her radio at its loudest from her window.

Here, she also displayed the relentless attitude of reaching out to express herself.

Her persistent desire of the oasis in mind is also reflected in the dream sequences that supposedly played out subconsciously in her mind, where she suddenly turns into a normal person who is capable of indulging in romance with her partner like any other being. In her mind, being able to embrace each other in love is more like a fantasy - an oasis that she knows she can never attain with her physical state of illness.

There's also revelations where it is revealed how the two of them are exploited by their own families for selfish gains. Jong-du take the rap for his brother who performed a hit-and-run and was sentenced to prison, yet it doesn't seem like any one in the family appreciates him any single bit. His presence is very much a magnetic repulsion in the eyes of his family. The existence of Gong-ju in the eyes of her family is merely a beneficial condition for her sibling and sibling-in-law to rent a discounted apartment that are meant for disabled/handicapped citizens.

For most of us, the above is indeed a painful heart-wrenching affair to observe.

It's also a painful experience to watch this film. There's a blatant rape scene that forms their very first meet of romance, and every movement and facial expression by Gong-ju looks extensively painstaking and one can imagine how much efforts have been spent to achieve them. This is very much to the credit of Moon's perfection of portraying a cerebral palsy patient in detail that won her the Marcello Mastroianni Award at Venice 2002.

Same goes for Sol's performance here that is praise-worthy, although Moon's performance here took a tad bit more limelight. It is evident that both of them are competent actors who can break away from their physical selves and step into another. Moon and Sol both acted in Lee's previous film Peppermint Candy just before they got back together on screen for Oasis. But in Peppermint Candy, it was mostly a solo melancholy portrayal of a man who went back down his memory lanes just before his imminent death by an incoming train.

I can't help but notice how Oasis marks the first film where Lee begins acquiring great performance from his female lead and became obsessively interested with exploring female characters in his later films. So in a way, this is probably the transitional film where Lee last features a dominating male cast performance.

Despite mentioning that Oasis was comparatively linear to his other films, it is nevertheless a bold film in South Korean cinema that leaves you astounded and breathless.


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