Oasis ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I had never heard of Lee Chang-dong. I had seen Oasis crop up here in friends favourite Korean lists, so that’s always a great excuse to try a new director. Move out of the comfort zone a bit.

Right from the first few minutes in, I saw that yes, I was indeed stepping out of my comfort zone. Sol Kyung-gu’s performance as Hong Jong-du made me uncomfortable. Not overtly, but uncomfortable none the less. I’ve lived in large cities most of my life, and I can spot Hong at a distance. I remember once seeing a similar character walking along the street. I remember his odd smile. Out of the blue he hauls out and decks some innocent bystander waiting at a streetcar stop. Randomly. The poor victim fell backwards right over a trash can. The Hong type character just kept on walking and smiling. The victim literally didn’t know what hit him. This is my prejudice. This is what I see. I try not to, but I do. Same with Hong. He hasn’t demonstrated his violence, but I’m sure it’s there.

I wasn’t terribly surprised to find out that Hong had a criminal record, including a history of violent crime. It fit my stereotype. I also wasn’t surprised that his family had moved and changed their phone number while he was away. But yet, I felt something stir in me. I was clearly pre-judging Hong, but, seeing his family reject him so completely made me feel so incredibly sad. I started to see Hong differently.

Enter Moon So-ri playing the cerebral palsy afflicted Han Gong-ju. Another prejudice flared up. I was afraid, I was repulsed. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the thought of such a devastating disease gripping someone so young? Maybe it’s a thought that I can’t even let enter my head that this could have happened to my family or friends, my Son. I cannot see Han, I can just see the effects of her cruel condition. Moon plays this part so convincingly that I can’t imagine that she is not a victim of CP herself.

In parallel with the Hong story, her family is equally happy, and quite well prepared to push her as far away as possible. The added slap here is that they appear to actually profit from their cruelty. This is beyond heartbreaking. Han is now alone, left in squalor, with only occasional visits from ‘the neighbours’ who drop off food. And to boot, the neighbours are being paid to do so! The way I am seeing Han now has changed. Strangely, it’s not pity. I want to get to know her, see beyond the mask of her affliction. The dancing spots from the reflection of her shattered mirror turn into butterflies. I’m seeing her now, and I’m glad she has been separated from those cruel, un-caring bastards. Wait. Am I possibly one of those cruel un-caring bastards, unable to see beyond my prejudices? Does Han see me as one of those harsh reflections being transformed into a butterfly?

Hong and Han meet. This could be the beginning of a Disney moment... no. Oh God no. Oh God no. From feeling somewhat better about myself, and having some hope for what these two characters could be to each other, I am now ready to crawl out of my skin. Every fibre in my being is telling me to run from the theatre. This is all going so horribly wrong. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. But it’s honest, and thankfully resolved quickly. I think that this absolute shock has numbed me. I now look at the Han and Hong more from a guarded distance, rather than close up. Strangely enough, I don’t fear a repeat, my trust seems to have grown. How can that be?

I am gripped and touched throughout the rest of the film. Fear is gone. I don’t see the mental illness, or the cerebral palsy, I see Han and Hong. Not in a fairytale life, but rather in a real life. Even the ‘fairytale’ sequences I found completely believable and incredibly touching. My Wife still doesn’t believe that Moon played both parts.

Story structure dictates that there must be some final conflict in the third act. I was dreading this, as I’ve so fallen in love with the characters by now. While it is incredibly frustrating and painful to watch, I know in my heart of hearts that Han and Hong will survive. They have already survived so much, and this is now just another obstacle to surmount.

Oasis isn’t Han and Hong’s story. It’s a story about me in reflection. I think, I hope, it has made a difference in me. I am more comfortable now, and maybe that’s the beginning.