(director/writer: Lee Chang-dong; cinematographer: Choi Yeong-taek; editor: Kim Hyun; music: Lee Jae-jin; cast: Sol Kyung-gu (Hong Jong-Du), Moon So-ri (Han Gong-Ju), Ahn Nae-sang (Hong Jong-Il), Ryoo Seung-wan (Hong Jong-Sae), Chu Gui-jeong (Jong-Sae’s wife), Kim Jin-gu (Mrs. Hong, The Mother), Son Byung-ho (Sang-shik), Yun Ga-hyun (Sang-Shik’s Wife); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Myung Kye-Nam; LifeSize Entertainment; 2002-S.Korea-in Korean with English subtitles)
“Makes you pay a dear price before getting to the sublime beauty of such a disturbing film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An edgy and quite different romantic drama by South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy”), a former novelist, that makes you pay a dear price before getting to the sublime beauty of such a disturbing film. It’s a maddening tale that borders on sordidness and absurdity, as it tells about the semi-retarded and socially maladjusted ex-con Hong Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-gu) and his friendship with a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy afflicted young woman named Han Gong-Ju (Moon So-ri), whose garbage man father he killed in a hit-and-run auto accident. It develops into a discomforting romantic/comedy story between the star-crossed lovers, one mentally handicapped and the other physically, as the couple’s disabilities are used to poke fun at middle-class hypocrisy, ignorance and fear of the abnormal.
It begins with Jong-du dressed only in a summer shirt on a winter day, as he is aimlessly wandering around the streets of Seoul while waiting for a bus to take him to see his estranged family. He was just released from prison after serving a two and a half-year jail sentence for drunk-driving manslaughter. Reaching his intended destination, he discovers his family is no longer there and left no forwarding address. Unable to locate them, Jong-du orders a meal he can’t pay for and implores the restaurant owner to telephone his younger brother Jong-sae (Ryoo Seung-wan) to come retrieve him and pay for it. However, Jong-sae cannot be contacted and the police are called. When Jong-du tries to escape, he’s quickly caught and in a rough manner brought down to the police station. Jong-du’s questioned about his misdeed and about his previous infractions for attempted rape and assault, as he’s obviously no angel. The police get hold of Jong-sae and after his release he dumps Jong-du on his eldest brother Jong-il (Ahn Nae-sang), who dwells in a tiny apartment with his wife (Chu Gui-jeong) and his mother (Kim Jin-jin). The 28-year-old childlike Jong-du is not made welcome and is lectured by the sadistic older brother to act like an adult. Jong-du is fixed up by him with a job as a motorcycle restaurant delivery boy, which he soon loses because he borrowed the motorcycle for a midnight spin and crashed it following a movie crew. In the meantime, Jong-du, wanting to apologize, makes an unwelcome visit to the accident victim’s family and insists on befriending the victim’s disabled daughter Gong-ju (Moon So-ri) before thrown out of the apartment by the brother Sang-shik (Son Byung-ho). Gong-ju is being abandoned in the squalid apartment complex by her uncaring brother and his wife (Yun Ga-hyun), who are moving to better living quarters thanks to his sister’s disability pension while disobeying the regulations by leaving her in the care of neighbors. This gives the guilt-stricken Jong-du, who stole the key to her apartment, a chance to visit with her alone, as he strikes up a very curious relationship without the ability to verbally communicate. She constantly grimaces and contorts her body movements, making it very difficult to relate to her. When Jong-du attempts to rape her, he is thwarted by Gong-Ju’s negativity toward him. But this attack awakened the womanly passion in Gong-Ju and after she manages to contact him again, they renew their friendship by going on a restaurant date–which turns sour because they are refused service because of their appearances. But the most harrowing restaurant scene is reserved for when Jong-Du infuriates his entire family by taking an uninvited Gong-Ju to a family banquet celebrating his mother’s birthday (where it becomes known who actually was responsible for her father’s accident). Back in Gong-Ju’s apartment the couple have consensual sex, which is misinterpreted by her brother who barges in on them and sees it as rape. At the police station Jong-Du’s brothers fail to understand their flawed brother, who cannot live with limits, and how his need for love, no matter how bizarre it might seem to them, means everything to him even though it can’t be defined in normal terms.
The film gets its title from a wall tapestry of a desert oasis that hangs in Gong-Ju’s room that scares her because the leafless branches from a tree outside her window engulfs it with shadows. By magic Jong-Du claims he can change it, and keeps his promise before the third act ends. Oasis also has a few fantasy interludes where Gong-Ju is able to overcome her disability and function as a normal citizen by dancing with joy.
The forceful performances by Moon So-ri and Sol Kyung-gu are just marvelous to behold. Lee Chang-dong’s direction is masterful. He is someone who is sure of himself and not afraid to take chances. It’s a pic that’s hard to put your finger on what its elusive moral point is, but you can feel how remarkable it is by its ability to communicate what isn’t that easy to communicate about love.
REVIEWED ON 12/3/2004 GRADE: A