Ocean Heaven -- Film Review

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SHANGHAI -- Action hero Jet Li gives a respectable turn as a terminally ill father grooming his autistic son to survive on his own in "Ocean Heaven" -- a decent, if orthodox job by Xue Xiaolu. Xue off-sets some of the wholesome soppiness of this genre by keeping the tone light, the story simple and steering clear of grueling ordeals. Compared with "Together," another father-son story that she co-scripted and Chen Kaige directed, it is less melodramatic and artificial. Set mostly in a marine park in Qingtao province, its interpretation of autism owes less to "Rain Man" than to "The Big Blue," awash with holistic, quasi-fantastical overtones, enhanced by Christopher Doyle's ravishing aquatic cinematography.

While the Chinese government, schools or NGOs may approve of this topic, "Ocean" goes against the grain of current market realities. A Jet Li who doesn't fight or perform stunts is a tough sell overseas. Back home, it might be overlooked by an audience infatuated with period war epics and stir-crazy comedy-farce. Hopefully, a summer release following its premiere as the opening film of the Shanghai International Film Festival can draw moderate family viewers in Chinese-speaking territories.

Since his wife's death 14 years ago, Wang Xingchang (Li) has been the sole guardian of his 21-year-old autistic son Dafu (Wen Zhang). When Wang is diagnosed with liver cancer, he tries to end both their lives in the sea, but Dafu is too good a swimmer to drown. Since then, Wang throws himself into the twin missions of finding an institutional home for Dafu, and training him to manage on his own.

The visits to different institutions, apart from giving a survey of special needs welfare in China, add naught to the dramatic flow or emotional interest; whereas the scenes of Dafu learning to perform the most basic tasks like boiling an egg, putting on his clothes or riding a bus can come across as hideously patronizing. The way Wang ooh-ahs at Dafu's every move is a ploy to emphasize his fatherly instinct and stoicism that appears to confuse autism with mental disability. However, the meaning of these initially insipidly repetitive scenes finally emerges in the coda to quite moving effect.

The finest moments are found in the marine park, where Wang works as a technician and Dafu is in his element frolicking with the turtles and the dolphins. The fluid shots of him gracefully gliding underwater reinforce the autistic man's affinity with a different world or reality. The lucent blue palette of the underwater shots and the aquarium's melancholic, cavernous interiors contrast atmospherically with humble street locations that are lit and shot in the gloomy hues of overcast weather.

Billed as the lead actress, Kwai Lun Mei is under-used as an itinerant circus performer who strikes up a friendship with Dafu. Given no back story and smothered in clown face makeup half the time, her interactions with Dafu are too sappy and superficial.

Gao Yuanyuan, who appears in a flashback as Wang's wife, leaves even less of an impression. It is the daily life episodes with kindly neighbor Aunt Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) that are most plausible and warm. The tact with which Wang handles her love which he cannot requite is subtle and touching.

Li is largely credible as an ordinary working-class father, even if some might think he is trying to consolidate his public image as a philanthropist. Still, his role's gambit to come back to Dafu in a different guise after his death is almost gag-worthy. Cynics will also find Dafu's character too angelic, and the society presented squeaky clean, with all characters doing the right thing without a trace of intolerance.

Production values are tip-top -- besides Doyle, such big names as Joe Hisaishi and Yee Chung Man provide quality music and production design respectively without overwhelming this small drama with excessive stylization.

Opening Film, Shanghai International Film Festival
Sales: Edko Films
Production companies: BDI Films Inc./Beijing H&H Communication Medium Limited/Nice Select Ltd
Cast: Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Kwai Lun Mei, Zhu Yuanyuan
Director-screenwriter: Xue Xiaolu
Producers: Hao Lee, Ma Hefeng, Bill Kong
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Costume: Zhang Ke
Editors: Chang Suk Ping, Yang Hongyu
No rating, 102 minutes
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