As it floods the festival circuit and trickles into American theaters, the thrilling new wave of Korean cinema has introduced filmmakers of varying style but common daring, particularly in their willingness to accommodate wild shifts in tone. Lee Chang-dong's audacious melodrama Oasis appears, at first blush, to be the worst in disease-of-the-week gooiness: the touching story of a romance between a brain-addled ex-con and a woman crippled by severe cerebral palsy. It's even littered with fantasy sequences in which the two magically transcend their physical and mental limitations and express their feelings in more socially acceptable ways. But, far from the teddy-bear sentimentality that usually accompanies films about the afflicted, Oasis fearlessly skirts the edge of good taste, with moments of sweetness and emotional generosity colliding with stark brutality and exploitation.
Any worries about a subtitled reprise of the 1999 Juliette Lewis/Giovanni Ribisi sudser The Other Sister are extinguished within the first reel, when a misbegotten act of contrition leads to horrific opportunity. Released for an involuntary-manslaughter charge after running over an elderly street-cleaner, Sol Kyung-gu hand-delivers a fruit basket to the victim's rundown Seoul apartment. Once there, he catches a glimpse of the old man's crippled daughter, Moon So-ri, who lives alone in squalor while her family illegally resides in upscale government housing intended for the disabled. In their first private encounter, Sol makes a crude attempt to rape the captive, terrified Moon; later, when they share the same intimacy in a more tender context, their affair is greeted with paroxysms of outrage from their otherwise uninterested and hypocritical families.
Throughout the film, Lee (Peppermint Candy) relieves Sol and Moon's dire circumstances with moving fantasy interludes—some imagine what it would be like if Moon could escape her tortured frame, while one suddenly fills her apartment with music, flowers, and a baby elephant. At times, Sol's erratic behavior brushes back the audience's sympathies, because his romantic impulsiveness endangers Moon as often as it flatters her; it's never quite clear until the end how much of their relationship exists merely to satisfy his desires. In a sense, Oasis is an unabashed tearjerker, but Lee keeps knocking the melodrama off-balance, making all the big emotional payoffs a little discomforting, because they're not that far removed from something really disturbing. In observing a relationship that exists outside social norms, it's only natural that Lee's movies follow in kind.