OCEAN HEAVEN Review
Jet Li finally appears to be making good on his promise to retire from martial arts filmmaking with this small-scale tearjerker that is notably devoid of anything approaching action. Li plays Wang, a maintenance man at an Ocean Park-style water theme park, who lives with his 20-year-old son, David (Wen Zhang). David suffers from autism and is unable to function independently in the outside world. He is a competent swimmer and regularly joins Wang at work, where he is allowed to play in the large aquariums with the dolphins, turtles and other tropical fish. However, when Wang discovers he has terminal cancer and only a matter of months left to live, he must help David assimilate into normal society, or risk him being incarcerated in a hellish mental asylum.
OCEAN HEAVEN opens with an eerily morbid scene, in which Wang takes David out to sea, with the intention of drowning them both. They plunge to the bottom of the ocean tied to a large weight, only for David to successfully untie himself and head for the surface, scuppering Wang's rather poorly judged plan. The scene sets a dark and sinister tone akin to something we might expect from a Kim Ki Duk film, but alas OCEAN HEAVEN then chooses to ignore this idea completely. Upon their return, Wang immediately sets out looking for more humane alternatives for David's future, such as special schools and potential carers, and his murderous intent is never again mentioned or dwelt upon. This is a shame, as an exploration of Wang's attempts to kill his own son when faced with abandonment would have made a far more interesting and challenging film than what actually follows.
Wang teaches David how to fend for himself - how to use money, take the bus, and dress himself - with entirely predictable results. David makes friends with a young and beautiful girl (Kwai Lunmei) who works as a clown at the park during the summer season, and is almost unbelievably wholesome, sympathetic and friendly towards David, in that way that only happens in the movies. As their friendship grows, David's relationship with his father is challenged as Wang's condition worsens and he becomes increasingly unable to look after himself, let alone his son.
Writer-turned-director Xue Xiao Lu pulls no punches during this shamelessly sentimental exercise, and while it is beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle, spending inordinate amounts of time underwater swimming with giant turtles, there is really nothing of notable interest in the film. That is, except for Jet Li's admittedly rather good performance as Wang, where you soon forget you are watching one of Asia's foremost action heroes, and instead are sucked in completely by his understated portrayal of an ordinary man slowly succumbing to cancer. Wen Zhang's portrayal of autism is competent, but rather by-the-numbers and one can't help but feel he may have built his performance by watching other films about autism, rather than spending time with real sufferers. Kwai is asked to do precious little in the film other than look compassionate and occasionally juggle, one of which she manages effortlessly, while the carefully framed coverage of her character suggests she probably lacked the required ball-tossing skills. The very existence of this last observation perhaps most effectively betrays just how uninteresting and unengaging the story is in OCEAN HEAVEN. It has all been seen and done many times before, and although it does provide the unique opportunity to see Jet Li impersonate a giant turtle, even that is not enough to warrant any kind of serious recommendation.
Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)