TSPDT 999: Oasis (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

TSPDT 999: Oasis (2002)

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I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the bottom of the list, Lee Chang-dong's 2002 drama Oasis.

There's a turn of phrase I've gradually phased out of my writing repertoire when it comes to criticism, when the piece of art "makes a mistake it can't recover from".  This implies I know more than the makers of the piece of art, and also posits the mistake as some kind of disease or injury that the art merely needs to take some bed rest to overcome.  When I accepted the good and the bad aspects of all works of art are more intentional than not, I started to appreciate more films, songs, books, and so on.

That also means when a film takes as dreadful a turn as Oasis does, I have to take that as intentional.  What begins as a depressingly realistic depiction of mental illness and how sufferers are ostracized from friends and family becomes a terrible fantasy.  Oasis is the film where its protagonist rapes a woman with cerebral palsy.  This is the start of their romance.  That rape begets romance is one of the many ethical travesties committed in Lee Chang-dong's film.Part of the tragedy is Chang-dong has a phenomenal sense of place and knows how to set a mood of uncertainty about his characters.  His camera frequently looks down on Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu), a man of questionable mental capabilities.  Chang-dong never outright states that Jong-du has some kind of mental illness, but Jong-du's frequent nose picking, constant violation of personal boundaries, and seemingly sincere questions about why his behavior is so off paint the picture well enough.

There's even an element of effective tragedy to how thoroughly Jong-du's family has abandoned him.  He seems to get by through constant pestering of total strangers until he gets the sustenance he needs (one nausea-inducing example shows him eating a block of raw tofu he had yet to pay for).  I also appreciated how Jong-du was aware of how the world reflects his image back at him as he's too busy bothering people for food or standing far too close to teenage girls on the phone to have even a sliver of self-reflection enter his mind.

Then Jong-du goes to meet the son of the man Jong-du killed in a car accident, a decision of severely questionable merit, and meets Gong-ju (Moon So-ri).  She's the daughter of the man Jong-du killed, has cerebral palsy, and in a moment of heartbreaking imagination pictures the reflections from her mirror as doves and butterflies.  So-ri is an able-bodied performer, something Chang-dong will take advantage of by seamlessly transitioning from scenes where Gong-ju is in her wheelchair then start singing or playing with Jong-du.

Eventually Jong-du rapes her, she passes out, he waterboards her to bring her back to consciousness, and the only follow-up is her calling him to ask why he brought flowers.  I sat in sickened silence during the rape, which Chang-dong films in one long terrifying shot, and felt more sickened by the total lack of moral follow-up.  Rape as a cheap plot device to shatter a character's world and force them to grapple with the pain is so common I've come to loathe any piece of art that even grazes the concept.Rape in Oasis is the start of a romance.  A romance wherein the victim has cerebral palsy and is still presented as able-bodied in fantasy sequences where she sings and dances.  All the gritty, if depressing, affect and Kyung-gu's unsettling performance builds up to this moment.  This isn't poetic, this is exploitative on so many levels that I honestly feel as though the material would be less immoral in a schlock studio's hand - maybe Troma.  Here it's artistry gone wrong to such a horrific degree that every sickly sweet interaction Jong-du and Gong-ju have afterwards only serves to remind me that Chang-dong wrote a scenario where rape and love go hand-in-hand.

This isn't a story of two misfits finding space for one another.  It's a disgusting fable of great craft and galling appropriation of violence along with physical handicaps.  Rape is rape.  There is no redeeming or repurposing rape for fantastical ends.  Even if there are no real consequences for Jong-du, as Oasis stops to remind us he'll be out of prison one day along with the implication Gong-ju willingly waits for him, I can at least hold Oasis accountable in my writing.

Oasis is an evil film wrapped in romantic packaging. Do not bother.

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Oasis (2002)

Screenplay written and directed by Lee Chang-dong.
Starring Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri.

Posted by Andrew

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