Defying Conventions

in 56th Cannes Film Festival

by Luciano Monteagudo

Certainly the best Lee Chang-dong’s film so far, Oasis is a work of arresting, unconventional beauty, which dares to take risks that are rare in contemporary cinema.

The Korean director, who stands (together with Hong Sang-soo) as one of the main new voices in the cinema of his country, still subscribes in Oasis to the harsh realism that informed his previous feature films, Green Fish (1996) and Peppermint Candy (1999), which toured festivals around the world.

But with his new film, a bold love story between a social misfit and a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy, the director pushes boundaries and defies convention. At the same time, he addresses wide audiences, as he found in his native country, where Oasis became one of the hits of the 2002 season, after winning five prizes at the Venice Film Festival (among them, the FIPRESCI award).

An unstable, aimless young man named Jong-du (Kyung-gu Sol) gets out of prison after a two-and-a-half year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. He tries to reach his family, but is unable to find them and ends up again at a police station, after he fails to pay the bill in a restaurant. “Don’t you ever disrupt my life again”, are the first words he hears from his younger brother, when he rescues him from the police precinct. His elder brother, his sister-in-law and even his mother don’t treat him better. But Jong-du is not a bad guy, just simple-minded and, aged 28, unable to take responsibility for his own actions, as his family always harshly reminds him.

On the other hand, Gong-ju (So-ri Moon), a severely- handicapped young woman, has been abandoned in a squalid tenement by her selfish brother and his pregnant wife, who now intend to benefit from a new building for registered disabled tenants. She’s left alone, barely cared by an interested neighbor, when Jong-du first meets her. He happens to be the man who supposedly killed her father in an accident (a fact which turns out not to be true) but nevertheless an endearing, moving relationship establishes between them, despite a very disturbing beginning.

A renowned novelist turned filmmaker, 48-year-old Lee Chang-dong challenges notions of good taste as he does of social rules, revealing without any consideration the essential hypocrisy that lies under most family ties and social behavior. As Rainer Werner Fassbinder did in the seventies, Lee uses the most daring melodrama – even at the risk of being kitsch – as a means of social criticism. It’s clear that for Lee Chang-dong, fantasy called love is always harassed by the repressive forces of daily reality.

Although more distant, other echoes reverberate in Oasis: those of Gelsomina and Zampanó, the two pure, simple-minded star-crossed lovers of Federico Fellini’s classic La Strada. Like them, Gong-ju and Jong-du are able to communicate their mutual affection and understanding not necessarily with words but with their actions. And like them, they feel at odds with their environment, which looks at them as freaks. They can only rely on themselves and their dreams, as is suggested by the tapestry in Gong-ju’s apartment, representing an exotic oasis, a sort of Eden they are not allowed to enter, at least on this earth.