"Oasis" is that rare miraculous whirlwind romance that moves from attempted rape to reverence without kicking up a lot of dust. Biliousness and the milk of human kindness flow from the same source: the Korean writer and director Lee Chang-Dong, who casually wins your devastation with his unlikely pair of lovers.
He's a mentally retarded ex-con named Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu); she's a shut-in with cerebral palsy named Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), and each spends the movie looking out at the world from a place of alienation. Their first encounter is a ghastly pas-de-deux that borders on violation. He forces himself on her, she has an attack, he revives her, then leaves her trembling on the bathroom floor. She comes to sentimentalize her attacker, calling him to talk.
This is the sort of bizarre stunt Hal Hartley might pull for a laugh, but Lee suggests that Jong-du's desperation is really an act of loneliness with which Gong-ju later identifies. That's a risky suggestion, but Jong-du himself seems redeemed by the subsequent phone call. He went to jail taking the rap for his brother, and his family considers him a blight. You get the sense that he's always been a sort of embarrassment.
Gong-ju is a prisoner of her body, completely aware of the world but physically powerless to take it on or say anything about it. Her brother and his wife make all her decisions, dropping by her government-funded apartment to check up on her while spending her subsidy on themselves.
The couple's relationship brings out a tyrannical aspect of both families that drives Gong-ju and Jong-du nuts. (Us, too.) Eventually, her brother and his wife catch them making love, and flip out. There's an ensuing trip to the police station, where a series of ugly confrontations points to an absurd social comedy buried beneath the concerns about propriety: Why shouldn't Jong-du and Gong-ju have meaningful sex?
This star-crossed relationship also threatens to make a better man of Jong-du, who finds himself performing mundane acts of love, like doing Gong-ju's laundry. He even asks the family pastor to pray for him. That kind of personal development is lost on his mother and brothers, and neither appalled family knows about the late-night phone calls she makes, or about his vow to obliterate the scary shadow that a tree casts into her bedroom.
The director, Lee, has a beautiful touch, setting his camera at a remove or at unusual angles. Unlike France's Bruno Dumont, whose movies can spend hours freezing you out, Lee's detached magic realism never goes cold.
And the actors' scenes together are simultaneously abrasive and oddly gentle: two untamable people trying to stabilize each other. He has an intense nervous energy, and she's amazing, especially when the movie lets wishful fantasies take flight.
The Indian lady and baby pachyderm in Jong-du's dreams come to life, and suddenly Moon's spasms disappear and her character has the grace and self-control to leave her wheelchair and dance with him.
What initially seems just a rigorous physical performance becomes an actor's sleight of hand: You stop seeing the character's external limitations and notice the boundless emotional possibilities.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.