An 'Oasis' Of Truth

One of the most poignant scenes in Lee Changdong's "Oasis" occurs midway through the film, when protagonist Jong-du introduces his girlfriend to his family. The pair arrives at a restaurant for his mother's 60th birthday celebration, but they are not exactly welcomed. Jong-du's date, Gong-ju, has cerebral palsy. And though Jong-du himself is mildly retarded, his family reacts to his girlfriend with discomfort, if not outright hostility. Furious, the two seek solace in a karaoke bar, but the chirpy pop songs cannot lighten the mood. Later that evening, Gong-ju begins to fantasize about what life would be like if she weren't handicapped. She imagines embracing Jong-du while singing softly into his ear.

The scene embodies the traits that make Lee one of Korea's most provocative directors: family dynamics, characters with disabilities and an unflinching look at Korean society. Local critics have long praised the director's literary, uncompromising style. But with his third film, "Oasis," released in August, Lee, 49, has moved beyond art-house popularity to build a following among mainstream Koreans. Indeed, when the movie went head-to-head with the country's biggest summer hit, "Minority Report," it pulled in a healthy $7 million in a little more than a month. While some Korean features have done well at home and others have won awards around the world, "Oasis" is one of the few to do both.

Lee's turn in the spotlight has been a long time in coming. Born in 1953, he worked first as a high-school teacher in the southern city of Daegu. But writing was his true passion, and he stayed awake late at night working on a novel. The publication of "The Booty," in 1983, marked him as one of Korea's leading novelists. Several books later, he approached one of the country's biggest directors, Park Kwang-su, about getting into movies. His first script for Park, "To a Starry Island"--about a man trying to bury his deceased father in his hometown over the objection of local islanders--became a critical and commercial hit. So did his second, "A Single Spark," a drama based on a young activist who burned himself alive during Korea's democracy movement in the 1980s. "Lee has an intense, precise way of delving into his characters," says Park. "He doesn't airbrush anything to make it commercial, but sticks to the truth."

In 1996 Lee made his directing debut with "Green Fish," which he also wrote. The movie features a young man, fresh out of military service, who discovers that rapid suburban development has swallowed his country home (a plight familiar to many in growth-mad Korea). "Peppermint Candy" (2000) was more explicitly about the national character. It charted a man's descent from innocence to corrupt cop to washed-up businessman--which many Koreans saw as mirroring their society's own slide. The film raised Lee's profile on the art-house circuit and won awards at several small international film festivals. Lee's films try to expose the uglier sides of life. "I don't think I can separate character from environment," he says. "The reality surrounding the character also explains the character." The trick is getting the audience to open up to difficult ideas. "I like the concept of how to make hard-to-accept subjects acceptable," he says.

Case in point: almost all of his films have featured disabled characters. The main character's brother in "Green Fish" had cerebral palsy, as did one young girl in "Starry Island," Panmae the Hunchback. Despite her disability, the carefree Panmae skips through her small village. Other children throw stones and call her names; her brother fights to defend her. It's a scene that rings true for Lee: one of his sisters has cerebral palsy, and as a child he often came to her defense. "We can see ourselves through people like that," he says. "Whether you can accept things that are different from yourself is a question of social values, attitude, of how people treat each other.

In "Oasis," Gong-ju uses her imagination to escape the confines of her body: a poster of an Indian woman and an elephant become part of her fantasies of her life with Jong-du. Like other recent Korean films, it tackles the theme of modernization and the idea that the country, in its push to wealth, has forsaken some of its humanity. Lee believes that as societies progress they tend to become more individualized. "But in that process, there are people left by the wayside," he says. His films seek to ensure that they are not forgotten.