Ah, the genius of marketing. I used to own a videotape of the American release of Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet (1991) that had a laughably inappropriate cover: candy-colored font, a giant donut with rainbow sprinkles on it, and Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner – both with noticeably larger Photoshopped cleavages – sitting right on top of the pastry. I understand, though I don’t agree with, the logic of the regrettable packaging – how on earth could one sell a dysfunctional family movie about communication breakdowns and bulimia, starring a bunch of thick-accented British actors no one had ever heard of? (Which is actually totally untrue: the cast also includes Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Stephen Rea, and Jim Broadbent – just about as star-studded as any Harry Potter movie, in my book.) But either way, I pity the fool who rented Life Is Sweet, hoping for a light family comedy.
(A digression: As much as I loved Life Is Sweet, I always there was something unaccountably condescending about the whole enterprise, maybe even more than in Abigail’s Party or Nuts in May. But I think Leigh managed to purge himself of that meanness via Naked, as he seemed to lose that patronizing undercurrent in his films thereafter.)
And so I feel similarly sorry for the person who rents Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis on the basis of the American DVD packaging, expecting an epic Korean romance – and who wouldn’t, with that cover of a young couple (described on the back as “two societal misfits”) locked in a kiss, a dove flying above them, rays of light piercing the clouds of a glorious sunset, the tagline “Love knows”, and cherry-picked blurbs (a “rare miraculous whirlwind romance”, says Wesley Morris; “No movie in recent memory has translated so clearly the secret language of lovers normally lost on the rest of the world,” says Michael Atkinson). The critical praise about the film’s romantic aspects isn’t completely inaccurate, but Oasis is a far, far more difficult movie than the packaging lets on. Indeed, it’s also parallel to Lee’s misdirection within the film, leading the viewer into corners one doesn’t quite expect.