Ocean Heaven, not to be confused with the Hollywood casino heist films with George Clooney and a ton of other stars, is a poignant movie about a young autistic man whose widower father is dying and trying to make sure his son can live on without him. With a lot of touching moments and splendid marine scenes, it starts off with an innocuous situation that is casually revealed to be something a bit horrific and tragic. That aside, it never loses its sentimental tone. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Ocean Heaven, it’s because it’s a mainland Chinese movie, set in Qingdao, and stars Jet Li in what is probably his only non-kicking ass movie role, and a worthy one at that. Autism is a tragic disorder that has a lot of unknowns and (this is based on pure conjecture) I assume that in China, it’s even less well-known and understood than in the West. There’s no cure for autism, and while the extent of the disorder varies among people, I know someone whose kid is autistic and the kid talks at a level very much below his age. It’s definitely cool that Jet Li would take on this movie and for no salary, though he did get a cut of the profits. It might take a leap of the imagination to have Jet, the kung-fu wizard who kicked ass in mainland China, Hong Kong and Hollywood movies, play a father who works as a humble maintenance man at an aquarium and whose only purpose in life is to look after his autistic son Dafu. But really, there is no need for such mental gymnastics because he plays the role convincingly as in almost every scene he’s in, his anguish and love for Dafu comes through really clear, even in a scene involving a turtle subterfuge which seemed rather ridiculous and laughable but was still very moving. There is no wooden acting from Jet Li, putting it simply. He is a real-life father of four so it’s not hard to see why he could be a loving father.
What’s also special about the movie is how charming and quaint it portrays China, without the extravagant flashiness and hyper-development of Beijing or Shanghai or the rough-and-rumble nature of daily life that you often see in the mainland. Dafu and his father live in a simple home in an apartment complex that is certainly no luxury neighborhood but nor is it a slum. The human element is strong and it’s not something we, especially in Taiwan, associate with China. The exception is when Jet Li gets in a shouting match with a rude bus driver while trying to teach Dafu to take the bus by himself. Otherwise, the movie is filled with sympathetic bosses and neighbors, kind acquaintances and patient teachers. The aquarium is a real one, the Qindao Polar Ocean World, and the scenes that feature its marine creatures such as Dafu swimming with a dolphin and even a turtle are well-filmed, being resplendent in color and light. As a plus, the female actresses are quite attractive, whether it be the caring neighbor whose love Jet Li nobly refuses, the clown (a Taiwanese actress) and the teachers at a special adults’ home. The movie maintains an even mood throughout that makes for an enjoyable and believable story, with little excessive melodrama or artificial sappiness.