Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (2002)

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002)

I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do not truly register in his mind as actions with consequences. This is Strike One against Hollywood, for it almost seems, to me, that the industry goes out of its way to present such “types” as misunderstood, and purely set against the world and its bigotry and evil. If not, they are simply given a trajectory for them to finally “settle” into themselves, and thus be accepted by others. Yet this flies in the face of virtually all people with such issues: they are, at best, ignored, if not systematically destroyed, and if not by others’ callousness, then by the germ of self-hatred such conditions worsen. One sees, early on, that Jong-du has had several arrests and convictions to his name, and by the end of the film, he is clearly not on some road to redemption, but is merely condemned to repeat his life, as he understands so little else within it. He attempts to rape Gong-ju, before they are really acquainted, and is violent in other ways, too. Yet, for all that, he’s whipped by his brother for “misbehaving,” is constantly being scolded and condescended to, even — we learn — as he willingly takes the blame for his brother’s drunk-driving murder, as Jong-du realizes that he, himself, has no prospects in life, while his brother does. It is an honest admission, painted deftly and swiftly with only a few short-lived exchanges, deepening the film’s prior (and coming) narrative. This, coupled with other misunderstandings, casts doubt on his supposed crimes, even as we definitely see the most repugnant one (attempted rape) early on, ourselves. The effect is mixed, for one cannot fetishize Jong-du as a mere savage, or as a “harmless retard,” but is clearly a real person, even if — as I’d written — the reality is one of mere shadow, in relation to our more complex selves.

Gong-ju defies stereotype, as well, merely by playing a realistic character with a clear physical disability. Odd, but this is Strike Two. Taken care of by family and neighbors, she lives alone in a small apartment for the disabled, is eventually visited by Jong-du, almost raped, then watches her neighbors have sex in front of her as they dismiss Gong-ju as “incapable” of understanding such things (even as her face says otherwise), and develops an affection for her would-be rapist. I can imagine pseudo-feminists getting upset at this, yet having a relationship develop between the two does something very important. It establishes Gong-ju as a REAL human being (likely the most “feminist” thing art can do for a female lead), who, in her utter seclusion, will attach herself to the first person interested in her, as Jong-du clearly is, taking her on dates, doing her laundry, discussing favorite colors and songs, and the like. At times, she is seen, for a few seconds, here and there, becoming “normal,” for this is how she perceives herself (or wishes to perceive herself), yet the viewer — unlike Hollywood, and the whole meta-narrative, itself — knows that’s simply not the case.

Strike Three is against this notion of “love,” that the film — both in the official synopsis, as well as in so many reviews — depicts genuine love between both characters, when, in fact, this is neither the film’s point, nor even very credible. Gong-ju might have some capacity for love, in the limited sense of the word, and as a child might, for her inexperience likely would not allow the feeling to truly mature, while Jong-du (and this is only a guess, based on his behavior in the rest of the film) can only show affection, as opposed to love, as far as it serves him. In short, while he might love Gong-ju in parts and in specific instances, neither his face nor his actions ever show love being prolonged past its more material reality of physical contact and on-scene affection. He is rarely lost in reverie, or wonders abstractly, while Gong-ju does, even if her own fantasies are so mild and child-like. Yet, even if love were possible between the two, that is not the film’s focus, at all. It is really others’ perceptions of their behavior — whatever that may be — and the consequences of their actions, and what that says, in a limited sense, about the two, and what it says more deeply of the world at large. This is a crucial difference, and Hollywood would have certainly taken the love angle to an extreme, thus fetishizing the two, instead of probing the deeper possibilities the film, in fact, offers.

Yet, for all of the “chaos” the two characters engender, it all makes a kind of sense in that self-sufficient world. Jong-du is wearing a thin shirt in the middle of winter because he has just left prison, with no money to buy other clothes; he eats raw tofu because he’s hungry, he cannot cook it, and it’s free; and he decides to saw a tree-branch because it scares Gong-ju every night, withering, as it is, in front of her window, despite how utterly psychotic such an act must look from the outside. In perhaps the best and most telling scene of the film, Jong-du even takes his girlfriend to a family dinner, where we learn Gong-ju is the daughter of the man Jong-du supposedly killed. The argument, in his mind, is rather simple: what does it matter? After all, he’s not responsible for the murder, and the two clearly wish to be together, regardless. It is a logical frame of mind, yes, but somehow inconsistent with the world at large (reality) despite its inner logic. Going further, Jong-du begins to speak of greenfinches behind his old house, which he once thought were sparrows with bells under their necks that he’d search for. In one of the best acting moments of the film, Jong-du laughs uncontrollably at the memory, and simply continues to laugh, while everyone else stares in discomfort. He is asked why he’s bringing this up, now, of all times, completely unprompted. Yet it’s obvious why he’s doing it: it is a family dinner, where such memories ought to be welcomed, and might very well be welcomed from others, but not from Jong-du. Again, logic (i.e., the man’s well-argued reasons for doing what he does) takes a backseat to reality (the world at large), as the two are quite different, for logic is merely the coherence of parts, while reality more or less shows these parts in action, as they move across a grander context.

As I watched the film for the third and fourth time, I found myself asking the same questions that I did in my first viewing. Why are people — especially the most vulnerable, and perhaps the most simple — so rarely treated or depicted as they are? Is there something immanently frightening about the world, as it is, or is that purely a subjective reaction? And why must people, no matter what they are, always be something else entirely? I suppose the easy answer — at least here — is that they’ve been so denigrated, so beat-up by history, that there needed to be some kind of corrective. Yet, going to the opposite extreme, and presenting kids (in education) or social misfits (in Hollywood) as somehow purely angelic, or evil, or without deeper agency is just as damaging, for any stereotype, even if “good” and comforting to one individual, is ultimately bad for the world at large. People do not survive history. Patterns do. At the end of the film, it is obvious that Jong-du will be imprisoned for a while, and that Gong-ju’s words — for she likely tried to exonerate him — were not heard, or simply ignored. At what point, then, do people cease to look at their individuated acts, and instead focus on the patterns they bequeath? Oasis has lots of detail, much of it difficult to watch, yet it’s the patterning that allows the film to actually go places, all the while leaving itself to us.

At one point in the film, the two characters are at a karaoke lounge, and Jong-du is singing some pop song. At the end, he announces that “Princess Han” (the meaning of Jong-du’s name) is up, and hands the microphone to her. Of course, she cannot sing, and the microphone simply hangs limply by her face. One can only imagine what she’s thinking, what kind of fantasy she’s concocting, now, about herself, in whatever alternate world where she could actually do such a simple thing, without Jong-du’s prompting. The camera simply pans to the computer screen, where the lyrics are being highlighted as the song goes on, yet there’s no singing, for it’s not possible, and what is not possible — if it really needs to be said — simply does not come.

Is this such a radical view of reality? In an absolute sense, it is not. Yet when it is continually disallowed, and broken into for the sake of something other than itself, other things seem to take precedence. Logic encourages, then boxes you into one interpretation. Reality, on the other hand, dissuades pure, unkempt, logic, for the world is not rationally constructed in all ways. It is up topeople to live up to the ideal. There is tension, here, but only when the two words are misunderstood, as they unfortunately almost always are.

[This review originally appeared on the Cosmoetica website, on 9/23/2014.]

[You can read Dan Schneider’s slightly dissenting review of the film here.]

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