Simultaneously transcending our notions of the unlikely love story and the tour-de-force performance, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong submits the defiant Oasis, a movie that challenges you to keep watching as it peers into the keyhole of lives governed by denial and despair.
Bad luck has a way of dogging Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-Gu), a mischievous, perpetually hunched-over ex-con. Freshly released from the latest of his three stays in the pen, where he was serving time for vehicular manslaughter, Jong-Du makes the questionable choice of dropping in on his victim's family to apologize. They're predictably outraged, but he does get to meet the dead man's daughter, Gong-Ju (Moon So-Ri), who's being kept a prisoner in the family apartment due to her affliction with severe cerebral palsy.
Knowing that one of Jong-Du's past prison terms was for attempted rape makes his instant attraction to Gong-Ju a squirmy prospect, and sure enough, he returns to the apartment to force himself on her. It's one of the most uncomfortable sequences to come down the filmic pike in many a year.
Some viewers won't be able to watch past that point, and even more will be turned off by the rapidity with which Gong-Ju forgives her attacker: A brief apology, and they're off on a whirlwind romance. But whatever director Lee might think about the seriousness of sexual assault (or, worse, the desperation of the disabled) fades into the background as the film passionately contrasts its protagonists' opening hearts with the cold disapproval of the outside world. Restaurants shun the couple, and it's gradually revealed that the real grotesques are their respective families, all of whom have sins of their own to hide.
Moon gives a simply remarkable performance, her every grunt and twitch so believable that we begin to wonder if the actress might suffer from CP herself. She doesn't, as is revealed in a startling passage that appears to illustrate the character's "real" inner being. It's a transfixing, profoundly unexpected moment; unfortunately, Lee repeats it two more times, belaboring the technique until it feels like a compromise of his picture's pro-tolerance message. Oasis remains a fascinating piece of work, but you end up wishing it had taken more of its cues from Gong-Ju's most trenchant line of dialogue: "I'm pretty as I am."