Dir: Lee Chang-dong. Korea. 2002. 134mins.
His 2000 festival-pleaser Peppermint Candy made Korean writer/director Lee Chang-dong one of Asia's hot new arthouse properties. With Oasis, his third feature, he puts his talent for unusual stories and finely-nuanced characters (he is also a novelist) to good use to further that reputation. A memorable film about the love between two misfits - one socially, the other physically disabled - it sticks in the mind well beyond the final credits. But it's not always an easy ride for the audience, and in commercial terms, is unlikely to be Lee's breakout movie, although it should extend the arthouse market already carved out by Candy. The film was internationally recognised with a Special Director's Prize at Venice, and will play Vancouver and London after its Toronto engagement. In South Korea it heads the box office, having taken $1.58m from 20 screens after three weeks.
On the surface, a love affair between a drifter fresh out of jail and a girl with cerebral palsy sounds perfect for the Hollywood schmaltz treatment. Lee, though, laces the tender emotion with high farce. Other moments make his audience squirm in their seats, including one attempted rape scene, where warm indulgence turns to shock and disbelief in a few seconds. In the end, though, these rough edges, and audience reluctance to be too charmed by the likeable but unstable male protagonist, give the story a gritty reality that is driven home by Choi Young-taek's unsentimental Steadicam photography.
The best thing about this film, though, is Hong Jong-du: a fine comic-dramatic creation brought to life by Candy lead Sol Kyung-gu. He's a universally-recognised congenital chancer, in and out of jail, always sniffing back a cold, jigging his legs and looking elsewhere when people tell him what a good-for-nothing he is.
He is first seen freezing in the Korean winter, just released from prison and only wearing the summer clothes he had when he went in. Oblivious to social conventions, he is constantly putting his foot in it, as when he takes flowers round to the family of the man he was imprisoned for killing in a road accident. It is here that he meets Han Gong-ju, the dead man's daughter, a cerebral palsy victim who has been abandoned by her brother and left with neighbours.
Although their first tete a tete is a disaster, (Jong-du loses control and tries to rape Gong-ju), subsequent meetings are more promising, and a love affair blossoms between the two outcasts. Moon So-ri, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Prize for new talent at Venice, puts in a fine performance as the young, bright woman trapped in a body that bears no relation to her self image. Her desperate desire to be normal boils over into dream sequences that are spliced unobtrusively into the action, including one where figures on a woven 'Oasis' rug come to life and dance around the room. The tragi-comic ending would ooze sentiment in the hands of a less able director; but Lee gives it a surprising depth.
Prod co: East Film Prods, UniKorea, Dream Venture Capital
Kor dist: CJ Entertainment
Int'l sales: Cineclick Asia
Prod: Myung Kaynam
Co-prods: Cho Min-choul, Jay Jeon
Scr: Lee Chang-dong
Cinematography: Choi Young-taek
Prod des: Shin Jum-hui
Ed: Kim Hyun
Music: Lee Jae-jin
Main cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Ahn Nae-sang, Ryoo Seung-wan, Chu Gui-jeong, Kim jin-jin