I’m working backwards through Chang-dong Lee’s filmography and I continue to be very impressed. Poetry and Secret Sunshine were sleeper films from their respective years, and his 2002 film Oasis was one of the best from that year as well.
One thing I like about Lee’s films is that they’re unpredictable. What always seems to be a somewhat old-hat narrative in the first act turns into something entirely different by the midpoint. Some of this may have to do with Lee’s background as a novelist. His films certainly are novelistic, with intricate plotting often leading towards (or featuring) a sex scene that is either awkward or between two decidedly “non-Hollywood” characters, and a climax that is devastating but with the faintest glimmer of hope.
Oasis begins as a seeming character sketch. Actually, it feels like a film where, were it less complex in its plotting, and were the characters playing boyish/girlish naivete or whimsical or the dreaded “quirky,” and were the color palette more colorful, and were the camera more fluid, and were…well you get the point…it’d be like an American “indie” in the narrative sense of the word. It’s not.
We’re first introduced to Jong-du (played expertly by Kyung-gu Sol) as a twitching, unreliable recent ex-con, who roams the streets of Seoul. Jong-du is a ticking bomb. He could explode at any time, but for much of the film we just watch the potential to go off build and build. He’s a fun, nervous character to watch. Lee’s handheld camera catches some of Jong-du’s energy. It also captures his sense of juvenile anarchy and, perhaps, a newfound appreciation for the world post-prison. Here’s an early shot that starts as a high angle with an orange dropping down from above and onto the cars below:
The camera tilts and pans up, dizzyingly-
-finding Jong-du in close-up, now preparing to spit:
The exploration of the height before the character is a nice representation of childhood (where Jong-du is perhaps stuck) where dropping an orange from an apartment building would still be thrilling.
Lee often uses foreground and background dramatically, keeping the background soft, but staging major action there. Here’s a small example. Jong-du meets Gong-ju (So-ri Moon), a handicapped girl who becomes the object of his desire.
In an early scene together, where most audience members – unless familiar with her affliction – would still be unsure how to interpret her reactions, Jong-du plays with her feet. On one hand it’s innocent. On the other, given our knowledge of his purported criminal history, it’s disturbing. It’s made all the more so by her violent reactions in the background:
We see her out of focus, but still clearly enough, and occupying half the frame. He is, of course, staged with his back to her, entirely oblivious. It’s an intentionally frustrating, tense moment.
Here’s another. Jong-du rides his motorcycle up to a film crew shooting a process shot with a red car on the back of a truck. Lee starts it in wide-shot from behind, emphasizing Jong-du speeding up:
Perhaps this is also a nod at the differences in production value. Lee has no process shots, no car mounts, and rarely a stable camera. He also doesn’t feature traditionally good-looking actors in expensive costuming. He’s as disgusted by this fictional shoot as Jong-du is curious.
Lee cuts to the front, placing the picture car in the foreground, and now with Jong-du in the background. It’s funny at first. Jong-du won’t get out of the shot despite the crew’s protests. Then, like many moments in Lee’s films, the mood switches abruptly where, again in the background of the shot, Jong-du spirals out of control, falling in a shower of sparks on his bike:
Lee shoots a few dream sequences throughout the film. Like this one. Jong-du and Gong-ju ride the train together. He starts in her close-up and POV as she watches a couple across from her. They could be the “normal” equivalent of she and Jong-du:
Lee cuts back to her-
-and then to Jong-du, standing up and unaware of her stares beyond him. Then she suddenly stands into frame:
To this point in the film it’s clear that she’s incapable of such a motion, so it’s obviously a dream/fantasy. It seems to be her dream – as do most throughout the film – given the series of shots that precede it. Beyond just a dream of a “normal” relationship, this also again seems to be Lee’s mocking of conventional Korean (or generally “conventional”) romantic dramas that feature attractive, physically capable young leads who spend much of the film playfully bantering (and dressed in red varsity jackets).
It’s a bold choice and one that could easily backfire: throw enough of these dreams in here and it might feel like a sob story. Lee throws them in fast enough – there’s nothing fancy about this one, she just stands into frame – and then leaves them without any indication of lingering feelings that they never dull the story. They’re cute, but they’re also a reminder that Oasis is a far more interesting movie. Once in the midst of these dream sequences it becomes clear that all narrative problems and obstacles would be easily overcome were the entire film to function that way, and that we’d be watching a glorified highlight reel or music video.
There’s something great about the physicality of Jong-du and Gong-ju. At one point he carries her in the midst of a traffic jam on a highway:
Another time he carries her on his back in an empty subway:
It’s not just their closeness or their willingness, but also that it frequently feels violent or dangerous, despite it mostly being the exact opposite. This is partially due to Gong-ju’s general inability to easily verbally communicate and Jong-du’s lack of social graces and inhibitions, but also to the swiftness with which Lee shoots the scenes, frequently in close-ups. It all just feels visceral and palpable.