While this has been billed as Jet Li's detour from his martial arts filmography, "Ocean Heaven" should really be known for more than that. This is an intimate and deeply moving portrait of a terminally ill father's (Jet Li's Wang Xuechang) attempt to teach his autistic son the necessary life skills to survive on his own before he passes away. It is also a poignant tribute to the infinite love that parents have for their children and their unending desire to take care and look after them to their best abilities, no matter the struggle, no matter the effort.
Beginning on a somewhat ominous note, Wang is first seen with his son, Da Fu (Wen Zhang), out at sea with the intention of drowning them both using a large weight tied to their legs. He doesn't succeed- his son the excellent swimmer unties them both and saves them from certain death. The deed may seem appalling but his motive is in fact humane- a single father since his wife's death 14 years ago, Wang thinks it may be better off for Da Fu to join him in death than for him suffer on his own when Wang dies.
After the failed suicide attempt, Wang takes it as a sign that Da Fu is meant to live and so sets out to train Da Fu to be as independent as he can be, while looking for an institutional home willing to accept persons with autism. Both these missions turn out equally moving, for they bring to light certain truths that we are either ignorant of or choose to ignore. Though almost at the age of 21, Da Fu knows not simple tasks like taking off his clothes, boiling an egg or riding a bus that younger kids without disabilities would probably have mastered effortlessly.
Watching Wang patiently teach Da Fu the steps of these daily tasks is in itself a testament to the perseverance and love that parents of children with special needs have for their kids, a love so pure and boundless it deserves to be celebrated. Just as you will be led to feel vicariously the patience and determination of these parents like Wang, you'll also experience an indescribable joy when Da Fu finally picks up these skills- think of these tasks like mini-Everests, and the completion of any one of them equivalent to the sweet triumph of conquering the summit.
On the other hand, Wang's search for an institutional home for his son highlights a societal gap that deserves attention. As Wang sums up aptly, there is often support for the young and the old in special schools and aged homes respectively, but little services offered for adults with special needs between these ages. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of their parents to look after them, and it is a real concern when these parents ask who is to help them take care of their children when they are too old or frail to do so. Indeed, local viewers may draw a parallel with a recent article in the Straits Times that also similarly highlighted a gap in our special-needs welfare system in catering to adults with autism.
Unlike lesser directors who would have tried explaining the workings of Da Fu's mind to their audiences, writer/director Xue Xiaolu instead wisely uses his affinity for the world underwater- swimming with the turtles and dolphins- as a motif of his state of mind, different and yet beautiful in its own way. These scenes of Da Fu's graceful diving in the aquarium, where both he and Wang works, are captured in a ravishingly lush blue palette by Christopher Doyle's cinematography, set evocatively against Joe Hisaishi's score and Yee Chung Man's production design.
Perhaps the only missed opportunity here is Xue's subplot involving Kwai Lun-Mei's circus clown turned friend to Da Fu. Not enough time is spent delineating the friendship that develops between the two and the result lacks credibility, especially since Kwai's character seems too ready to accept Da Fu's quirks and idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, the film's focus is really on the father-son duo of Wang and Da Fu- and in this regard, succeeds tremendously thanks in no small part to Jet Li and Zhang Wen's sublime yet powerfully convincing performances.
Yes, you should know that even without his fists or kicks, Jet Li still proves to be a magnetic actor with his unassuming portrayal of an ordinary man looking out for his son while looking death in the eye. But really, this film is more important and more significant than just being Jet Li's first non-action role- it is an extremely moving story of a father's tireless love for his son, no matter the odds, no matter the challenge. Especially to the parents of children with special needs who have given themselves continuously to the care of their kids, this is a tribute to the depth of your love, the depth of your heart.