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Theme Tuesday - Lee Changdong - Oasis

For November 2018, I will be exploring and revisiting the works of one of South Korea’s greatest cinematic storytellers - Lee Changdong - which will culminate in an assessment of his latest film, Burning.


Compared to his previous, much acclaimed Peppermint Candy, Oasis seems to scale down quite a bit. The story is mainly about two characters. Jong-du (Sol Kyung-kyu) has just recently been released from jail and is socially maladjusted and is possibly mentally disabled. Gong-ju (Moon Sori) is a young woman with severe cerebral palsy who mostly lives alone in a small, drab apartment. Her family only occasionally checks up on her, and she depends on her neighbors to bring her food and basic necessities, like an unwanted pet. Their relationship starts in the most problematic way, when Jong-du attempts to rape the clearly defenseless Gong-ju in her home.

No one should make an apology for Jong-du’s behavior. It is definitely the most problematic part of the film, and Lee Changdong does not shy away from it, showing just how terrified Gong-ju is during the assault. Yet when Gong-ju sees her relatives having sex basically right in the next room without attempting to conceal themselves since they do not see her as a person, she craves that physical intimacy that she has not experienced. The attempted rape didn’t come out of nowhere. He sent her flowers and asked after her, more attention than she has ever gotten. It is far from an ideal situation, but it is the only prospect Gong-ju sees of any sort of romantic relationship, and, surprisingly or not, their relationship actually starts to develop, problematic as it may be in its conception.

Though the story is relatively small, the scope is just as big and ambitious as Peppermint Candy’s. Both characters are seen as undesirable outsiders in their families. It is easier to get indignant at Gong-ju’s family since she is seen mostly as some unsightly horror that needs to be locked away. But we come to see just how much Jong-du’s family treats him like a stray dog that they are forced to take care of. A big revelation towards the end does not erase our memory of Jong-du’s actions, but it will make you furious at the family and their treatment of him. It was why I was so pissed when I was rewatching the film because while the callused actions of Gong-ju’s family towards her are easily condemnable, Jong-du’s family’s actions are less so without context.

Just with the depiction of this couple, Oasis portrays the absolute worst of Korean society. How the traditional Korean patriarchy shoves aside people they see as disposable, even their own children and siblings. As a Korean-American, I’ve heard horror stories about families in which older, usually male, children are treated way better than their younger siblings, even when the older child is a borderline criminal and the younger is so much more successful.

There is, of course, a lot to recommend this film. Sol Kyung-kyu as Jong-du is almost unrecognizable, even though he doesn’t alter his physical appearance in any major way. It is more his personality and the way that he carries himself that made his character so convincing. His Jong-du is a kind of child and who does not understand basic ideas and social mores that are obvious to most people. It explains why he doesn’t understand something like consent although it definitely does not excuse him for that crime. Moon So-ri as Gong-ju is the flashier performance. She is so convincing as someone with severe cerebral palsy that it can be a shock when we see her without it in a dream sequence of hers. She also imbues Gong-ju with a lot of humanity, and we can see the constant desperation to make herself understood. Lee Changdong keeps his flashier moments subtle, like how the reflection of the mirror becomes a bird in Gong-ju’s house. The way he stages his scenes though, such as the extremely awkward and tense dinner scene when Jong-du brings Gong-ju to meet his family, is so masterful in how he shows a wide variety of reactions and emotions and their are multiple smaller visual and narrative arcs going on that make one impactful whole. With Oasis, Lee Changdong is already well on his way to become South Korea’s great storyteller that hold Korean society up to an intense magnifying lens.

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