Ocean Heaven (2010: Xue Xiao-lu) China ***½/****
This has been touted as Jet Li’s first starring non-action drama. While that is interesting it is probably the wrong approach to think of Li’s past roles before watching this movie. This is a simple bittersweet realist drama that is a moving cinematic experience because of the earnest performances. Jet Li’s minimalist characterization is the right approach for his character Wang Xuechang and quite different than his action persona. The director describes Li’s character as “like a man who has become a mother.” He is described by others in the film as a good man, which he is. He is doing the best he can with this situation with dogged determination, not with brilliance or luck, but perseverance. Wang is a maintenance work for an aquarium and had lost his wife fourteen years ago. He also has complete responsibility of his son Dafu (Wen Zhang: also acts with Jet Li in the later The Sorcerer and the White Snake) who suffers from severe autism. Wang is also dying from liver cancer and is given around three months to live.
The film stars off inauspiciously. Wang takes his son out to the ocean to drown him and himself. This does not work because the son had secretly untied the rope and the son has one special gift in his mostly closed world -- he is an excellent swimmer. So Wang goes back to his home and work determined to leave his son prepared for his passing while his pains get worse by the day. At first he tries to find a place where he can leave his son. But either the institutions are for kids or seniors which the 22-year old does not qualify. While this proves difficult he also spends time going over simple behaviors like riding the bus, cooking eggs, and spending money so he can have some semblance of a normal life.
While Dafu spends his days swimming in the aquarium tanks he befriends a travelling circus clown and juggler Ling Ling (Kwai Lun-mei: also acts with Jet Li in the later Flying Swords of Dragon Gate; she also sings a song for the film) who also gives Dafu someone else to trust. But given that her life is nomadic and that Wang’s life is slowly ebbing away you are left to wonder what is going to happen to Dafu.
This is Xue Xiao-lu’s first directed film. Her only other screen credit is for the writing on Chen Kaige’s Together. Xue has stated she has worked on this project fourteen years, referring to her volunteer work with autistic children, and by the time the screenplay got to be read by Jet Li it was in its seventh draft. What is impressive is the crew that was put together for this film. For the cinematography you have Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Hero), for the music you have Joe Hisaishi (Kikujiro, Spirited Away) and production design by Yee Chung-man (Tokyo Raiders, Shaolin). Having this triumvirate is quite unbelievable considering the modest budget. Their collaboration helps the film immensely in sound and image.
This is a beautiful looking film. The cinematography and production design is dominated by blue hues throughout as a constant allegory to the water in their lives. The acting from Li and especially Wen is quite good. There relationship is quite touching as is the relationship between Dafu and Ling Ling. That one is underplayed, but I think that is the right decision for this film. So much of the success of this film depends on how Wen portrays his character’s interactions with these two. There are no magical solutions to the familial issues, just a lot of hard work from caring people. There are no real antagonists in this story. Some might consider this a negative, but the movie does not need it. I am glad, because Dafu’s life is difficult enough and the movie is emotional enough. I had to watch it in two sittings because the first half depressed me quite a bit. I do recommend this movie and hope those who are on the fence about watching this to give it a watch. I think it is quite a good film.
There are certainly some parallels between this film and Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s Heart of Dragon. Both films were dramatic roles dealing with a caretaker having no choice in dealing with a mentally challenged relative and both were popular action stars getting a chance to expand their acting repertoire. This film also reminds me of Zhang Yang’s underrated Shower in which the relationship between Er Ming and Liu parallels that of the two main characters here. There is also a water motif present in both films though I think the allegory is stronger in Shower and more matter-of-fact here. I mention these films because both are interesting and different approaches to similar matter. Shower is also one of my favorite films.
I saw this on the R1 Well Go DVD release. But there is also a R1 BD/DVD combo available from Well Go which should have the same extras. For the extras there is an 11 minute “Making of” extra which has interviews from Jet Li, Kwai Lun-mei, Wen Zhang and Xue Xiao-lu and inserted footage from the movie. It has some good information, but is ultimately too short. There is a trailer and a teaser as well. However, the description on the back uses names for the two characters (Sam and David) that appear nowhere in the film and there is no English dub so I am not sure where they came from. The two dubs for this are a Mandarin 5.1 Dolby and a Mandarin Dolby Stereo. There is also an R3 Edko release of this film that came out in 2010.
I have to mention the fact that Mao Zedong is on the money in China, which is shown predominately in several scenes, but was hideous in his treatment of mentally challenged people (and people in general, the amount of deaths he is responsible for is mind-boggling). It is possibly an illusion in the film. The term used during that time was “can fei” which translates to disabled and useless. It really is hard to find good information on the mentally disabled during the time of Mao (of the books I have and online; I have found several references of Mao’s discrediting psychology and putting away political opponents and considering them mentally unfit).