Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Oasis’ and the Eligibility of Love

Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Oasis’ and the Eligibility of Love

“I’m sorry to tell you this … but I really don’t like you. I know these sound harsh words, but with you out of the way, I was living well. Without you, we had no worries. Not only me, your brother, and your mom feel the same way. I didn’t want to tell you, but I assume it would have come out sooner or later.”

These opening words are addressed to Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu), the protagonist of the 2002 South Korean drama Oasis (2002), by his sister-in-law as his mother, in the background, remains silent. This unfolds, shortly after his release from prison, served on behalf of manslaughter committed by his brother. What should be gratitude, let alone acknowledgment, is replaced by a despicable speech with which the viewer can but somewhat share.

For Jong-du, loving and being loved is not something “given,” not even by the one who gave birth to him and not even by those with whom he shares blood. Likewise, it is unlikely that a “normal” person would want anything to do with him. The viewer, presumably, would not want to have anything to do with him. Yet, Jong-du is neither cruel nor callous nor evil.

Jong-du is an example of the person we instinctively distance ourselves from when crossing the street. He communicates and looks at people strangely, violates personal space, lingers long where he is not wanted, does not understand social norms, and triggers in the counterpart the innate need to get away as soon as possible. He meets the co-protagonist, the daughter of the man whose death he took the blame for, thinking the family would have welcomed a basket of fruit as an apology. Implicitly suffering from a form of intellectual disability, he is, according to common feeling, “unpleasant.”

Similarly, the word “ugly” follows the female protagonist, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), who suffers from severe cerebral palsy, rendering her unable to move and speak well. Gong-ju is poorly cared for by her family, who all live in a lovely apartment profiting on welfare benefits while renting a tiny one-room apartment in a suburb for the girl. Her care is entrusted to the generosity of her neighbors, who feed and treat her like an animal. She never asks for anything, partly because no one cares that she may have any demands. The director Lee Chang-dong himself explained that he chose a disabled person for the female character that would make her less pleasing to the eye.

For a woman, not reflecting the standard conception of aesthetic beauty is, in his opinion, an obvious source of societal marginalization. However, Gong-ju’s inner world is depicted with stylistic devices close to those of poetic representation. From her perspective, refractions of light and shadows project images only comprehensible to her – doves, butterflies, or even feasts and dances.

The two protagonists are portrayed and scripted with a clear objective: to represent not so much disability but how difficult it is to love and feel close to someone when the concepts traditionally underlying love are missing. More specifically, in the collective imagination, disabled people are often seen as perpetual children, unable to experience the desire for intimacy and affection, which are needs inherent to being human.

Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Oasis’ and the Eligibility of Love
A still from Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Oasis’

If both Jong-du and Gong-ju are barely considered people, the idea that they could cherish the desire to love, or be loved, is almost inconsiderable. They do not fit and are not qualified for this ‘kind of thing.’ And it is curious the idea that not everyone is legitimized, or apt, to romantic desire. But to the question, “What can they, the outcasts of society, know about love?” the answer Oasis asserts is “More than one would think.” One of the most criticized scenes in the film is, predictably, that of the first proper meeting between Jung-du and Gong-ju, which results, after a bizarre courtship by Jong-du, in an attempted rape. While it exposes the dangers of dereliction of duty and denial of the rights of people like Jung-du, it also makes it even more complex to conceive the resulting relationship as positive.

Realistically, Jong-du, who has never been loved or wanted, as an inevitable consequence, has never learned to receive and give love, nor can he convey or perceive it very well. As difficult as it is to understand what goes on in the young man’s head, the mere fact that the girl does not want to, or cannot, move away from him is enough for him to be perceived as affectionate. His behavior stems from his innate, though repressed, desire for physical and emotional closeness. In contrast, for Gong-ju, whose disability is only physical, the attempted violence is apparent. Nonetheless, Jong-du is the first person in her life to find her worthy of attention. And this responds to another innately human desire, that of being wanted. Jong-du, realizing he is doing something wrong, stops, and Gong-ju reconnects with him.

Once established, the two characters’ relationship adopts the characteristic features of courtly love, a conception underlying the mainstream imagination of romantic love and based on the idea that only those who love possess a noble heart. If Jong-du starts calling Gong-ju “princess,” Gong-ju addresses him with the title “general,” mirroring the roles of a noblewoman and a knight at her service. Lee suggests that, despite the apparent inability of people like Jong-du and Gong-ju to understand love, they can nevertheless build a relationship based on the most authentic traits of romance.

Not only that, in the tradition of courtly love, the word “lover” does not refer to sheer sexual implications but to the knight’s commitment to the act of caring for and emotional intimacy with his Lady. Jong-du takes care of all the girl’s needs, and between the two, a relationship of existential understanding is forged, an understanding that could not exist elsewhere.

It is to their love that the word “oasis” of the title refers. The oasis is the fantasy within the reality of two people for whom any kind of relationship seems almost impossible. Yet they are able to achieve a relationship that the rest of the world is unable to understand and, in fact, does not understand. Though the ending is not merry, Lee Chang-dong still vindicates the innate right to love from which society’s outcasts are automatically disqualified. And, albeit forcibly separated, Gong-ju and Jong-du will continue to love each other and protect their oasis.

In short, the beauty of Oasis lies in questioning what it means to love and who is entitled to do so, disrupting the common sentiment and responding with what should be, but unfortunately is not, an obvious answer: “Anyone.”

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