Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂)
Contemporary light drama
Directed by Xue Xiaolu (薛曉路)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 13 June 2010
Jet Li's first non-action movie is an engaging, simply-told story that avoids tearjerker cliches. Potential in Asia, if audiences respond to Li's name and word-of-mouth.
Qingdao, China, the present day. Following the death of his wife (Gao Yuanyuan) years ago in a swimming accident, acquarium worker Wang Xincheng (Jet Li) was left to raise his autistic son Dafu (Wen Zhang) on his own. However, Wang has terminal liver cancer and realises he must try to equip Dafu, now 21, to a life without him - which is easier said than done.
Any fears that Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂) is going to be a worthy, big-star, disease-of-the-week melodrama are immediately put to rest by its opening scene, which leads the audience in one direction and then neatly pulls the carpet from under it. From Christopher Doyle's atypically unvarnished photography of the Qingdao locations to the straightforward performances of the small but well-chosen cast, there's a simplicity to the whole movie that's much to the credit of first-time director Xue Xiaolu (薛曉路). A screenwriter who previously worked on TV dramas, she also penned Chen Kaige's (陳凱歌) rather more fulsome Together (和你在一起, 2002).
For a film that is virtually plotless, and depends much on performances and small behavioural details, there's no sense of drag across the tight, 93-minute running time. The main character is not so much the autistic son - played without exaggeration by Wen Zhang (文章) - but his average, blue-collar father, a devoted parent with an endless supply of patience for whom his son's future place in the world after his death is the one and only thing. With glasses and grey-flecked hair, the 47-year-old Jet Li (李連杰) plays the role with an upbeat simplicity that mirrors the son's own child-like universe without showboating too much. There's never any doubt that this is a character performance by a major star, but it's a genuinely likable one, and a long way from the blank-faced Li of so many action movies.
The other actors adopt a similar tone, especially Taiwan's Guey Lun-mei (桂綸鎂, All About Women 女人不壞, Blue Gate Crossing 藍色大門) as a travelling circus clown who befriends the autistic son and Zhu Yuanyuan (朱媛媛, so good as the wife in The Forest Ranger 天狗) as a neighbour who clearly has a liking for the father. Both relationships could have been unbearably cute and/or mushy, but Xue's script leaves the deeper currents largely to the audience's imagination, with just a few brief scenes sketching the characters' attraction to each other. (As the son's mother, Gao Yuanyuan 高圓圓 is only on screen for a few seconds in a flashback.)
Scoring by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi (久石譲) is warm but not sentimental, and the strain of humour which runs right through the movie also prevents it from curdling in any well-meaning, politically correct juices. Like its lead character, Ocean Heaven is a small, unpretentious film with a big heart.