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Ocean Heaven
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by Jay Seaver

"Jet Li is even up to challenges that can't be punched away."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Jet Li's accomplishments as an action star are well-known around the world, he's so good that his skill as an actor is often masked, if not considered entirely irrelevant. His good works are somewhat less well known, but he has made a point of sharing his good fortune. The latter two traits are what are on display in "Ocean Heaven"; not only did Li feel strongly enough about the movie's subject matter to take the job on for just a dollar, but he acquits himself quite well even though there's not a fight to be found.

Li plays Wang Xincheng, an electrician at a Qingdao aquarium. His autistic twenty-one-year-old son, Dafu (Wen Zhang), is with him all the time (he swims as well as the fish), and both Xincheng's neighbor Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) and boss Tang (Dong Yong) are fond of the pair. Still, when "Old Wang" is diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, his initial reaction is despair. And no wonder - teaching Dafu to be self-sufficient is a tremendous challenge, while it's proving almost impossible to find a care facility that will accept somebody Dafu's age.

Writer/director Xue Xiao Lu knows this territory; she has spent years working with autistic children, and her depiction of the Wangs' challenges have the ring of truth without sensationalizing things. There's an impressive lack of melodrama here; Xue doesn't feel the need to either inject some sort of obstructive bureaucratic villain into the proceedings or have the characters wring their hands or make teary speeches about their situation. Everybody is doing the best he or she can in a tricky situation, and Xue has a nice habit of cutting away from scenes a bit earlier than others might, letting the audience chew on the situation as the next scene starts as opposed to milking it.

She may be a first-time director (she also co-wrote 2003's Together), but she has a top-notch team working with her. Christopher Doyle is the cinematographer, for instance, and he makes every shot look great, especially considering that much of the movie takes place inside an aquarium. The pervasive light blues could easily run together, but things wind up looking very nice indeed. Editor William Chang is a frequent collaborator of Wong Kar-wai, and Joe Hisaishi is the favored composer for Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano. It's a good-looking, well-put-together film.

And, of course, there's Jet Li in what is certainly an unconventional part for him. He's worn down, especially in the opening scene, and spends much of the movie showing Xincheng facing down his own death sentence while trying to teach Dafu how to live at least semi-independently. It's an acting job which earns a fair amount of respect, because it is for the most part not a matter of speeches and broad gestures, but a man going about his tasks, letting pain creep across his face when nobody's looking, or lovingly and enthusiastically cheering his son on while a little bit of him clearly wonders why it's got to be so hard.

Wen Zhang does well as Dafu; I suspect that it's a decent portrayal of autism (not having much first-hand experience with autistic people) because the viewer gets used to it, even though the first scenes may scan as overacting. Dafu has his tics, but he's got a personality of his own, too. The rest of the cast works nicely with the pair - Zhu Yuanyuan plays the shopkeeper who lives next door as a potential love interest tragically stuck in a different sort of movie, while Dong Yang does well as the gruff but quietly sympathetic director of the aquarium. A circus sets up at the aquarium, and Kwai Lun Mei is charming as the pretty young clown who befriends Dafu.

They aren't complicated characters, but they're part of a movie whose simplicity tends toward elegance. Xue Xiao Lu presents the challenges of having an autistic child and makes it clear that they are not insurmountable, while her big star is a happy surprise in helping to get the message out.

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originally posted: 10/11/11 00:52:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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  DVD: 14-Feb-2012


  DVD: 14-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Xiao-Lu Xue

Written by
  Xiao-Lu Xue

  Jet Li
  Zhang Wen
  Lunmei Kwai
  Yuanyuan Zhu

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