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Ocean Heaven
Ocean Heaven

Wen Zhang and Jet Li in Ocean Heaven.
AKA: Ocean Paradise
Chinese: 海洋天堂
Year: 2010
Director: Xue Xiaolu
Producer: Bill Kong, Hao Lee, Ma Hefeng
Writer: Xue Xiaolu
Cast: Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Guey Lun-Mei, Zhu Yuanyuan, Dong Yong, Gao Yuanyuan, Chen Rui
The Skinny: A rewarding and remarkably restrained drama that's much better than its movie-of-the-week subject matter might imply. Jet Li and Wen Zhang turn in fine performances, and the insanely amazing crew (Christopher Doyle, Yee Chung-Man, Joe Hisaishi) do good work too.
by Kozo:
No kung fu, no problem. Jet Li doesn't fight in Ocean Heaven, and that's just fine. A could-be overbearing tearjerker, Ocean Heaven surprises in just how straightforward and simple it is. Writer-director Xue Xiaolu (screenwriter for Chen Kaige's Together) eschews the manipulative theatrics and overdone sentimentality of similarly plotted films to deliver something restrained and rewarding. Lives won't change – hell, few films could ever claim to do that anyway – but Ocean Heaven is a worthy little drama that's much better than its movie-of-the-week subject matter might lead one to believe.

Jet Li stars as Wang Xincheng, father to autistic 22 year-old Wang Dafu (Wen Zhang). The film opens on a dark note, with Xincheng attempting to drown himself and Dafu in the ocean. Xincheng's double suicide attempt is understandable; he's suffering from terminal liver cancer, and thinks nobody can take care of Dafu after his passing. But Dafu squirms free of their intended watery grave, leading Xincheng to believe that fate must intend something else for his son. Xincheng goes about searching for a new home for Dafu, while also teaching him how to get along without his dear old dad. Meanwhile, Dafu strikes up a new, possibly rewarding friendship with a traveling circus clown named Ling (Guey Lun-Mei).

Does Dafu fall in love with Ling and vice-versa? Maybe in a super-glossy attempt at this story, but here the friendship between the two characters is platonic and believable. There's very little development for their connection, but the actors and situations sell it such that it’s easy to buy. Likewise, the narrative progresses organically and realistically, with exposition delivered at the right times and by the right people. Ocean Heaven details Xincheng's daily struggle to establish Dafu's future, with as much learned through action as through dialogue. In one sequence, Xincheng tries to teach Dafu how to ride the bus to his new job, with plenty of instruction and repetition demonstrating Xincheng’s uphill battle. In another sequence, it's Xincheng teaching Dafu how to dress himself. Hardly exciting, but Xue Xialou's solid storytelling makes each moment matter.

The actors help tremendously. Jet Li's performance is a success in that the actor makes you forget that you're watching Jet Li, martial arts superstar. He brings such a common, unassuming decency to his character that when neighbor Madam Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) tells him that he's basically the best man ever, it's an earned, even touching sentiment. Wen Zhang is flawless as Dafu, appearing perfectly opaque as his character should. Much of the drama revolves around whether or not Dafu will learn, and Wen Zhang's performance makes that concern as real for the audience as it is for Xincheng. In supporting roles, Zhu Yuanyuan, Dong Yong (Fearless) and Guey Lun-Mei are fine. Gao Yuanyuan (City of Life and Death) turns up in a small, effective cameo as Xincheng's departed wife.

The film's big hook is pretty much revealed on the poster, and sounds incredibly cheesy taken at face value. However, Xue Xiaolu doesn't play it as such, naturally revealing Xincheng's grand plan for after he passes away in an almost offhand manner. There are a few forced moments along the way, but Ocean Heaven is told in such a deliberately straightforward manner that it ends up affecting less than it possibly could. Rarely does the film seem to be asking for tears, and the few moments that seem right out of the tearjerker playbook (Exhibit A: Dafu gets lost and Xincheng searches for him) aren't taken to the extremes they could be. Ocean Heaven isn't contemplative either, meaning we're not expected to wring meaning from people gazing into the distance. This is a simple tale about a man who cares for his son, and the filmmakers never oversell that.

Jet Li reportedly took only a single dollar to work on Ocean Heaven, with his participation given due to the film's humanitarian message. Li wasn't the only big name who came on board. Aside from Guey Lun-Mei, there's also production designer Yee Chung-Man (Curse of the Golden Flower, Comrades, Almost a Love Story), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (too many Wong Kar-Wai movies to mention), editor William Chang Suk-Ping (also too many Wong Kar-Wai movies to mention) and composer Joe Hisaishi (all of Hayao Miyazaki's films). Hold on -- Christopher Doyle and Joe Hisaishi worked on this film? Holy hell, it's almost like the filmmakers are cheating! Factor in all of those individuals, plus a song penned and performed by some guy named Jay Chou, and you have a ridiculous amount of talent working on Ocean Heaven. Given the film’s modest budget (less than a million US dollars), it’s apparent that everyone who worked on the film cared for its subject matter and themes, and their efforts should be appreciated. So should the film. (Kozo 2010)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image credit: Edko Films Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen