In the past several years, there's been a tremendous increase of awareness surrounding the nature of autism. To be correct, autism is medically known as, either, Autism or Autism Spectral Disorder (ASD); both terms define a group of disorders associated to the development of the human brain. Typically, persons suffering autism display difficulty in interacting socially; in fact, they may experience difficulty with any form of communication. They may engage in repetitive behaviors - repeating sounds or phrases, arranging and re-arranging objects and furniture, flapping or waving of the hands and/or fingers, etc. Of course, there are other vastly more serious and complicated medical symptoms and realities; but the end result is that - when dealing with the traditional parent-child relationship - it becomes increasingly difficult to responsibly raise a sufferer who neither completely grasps the direction or advice offered nor possesses the skills to adequately define any cause for alarm to the parent. Still, the parent continues on - out of love - and that's the central theme behind writer/director Xue Xiaolu's latest film, OCEAN HEAVEN.
To his surprise, widowed handyman Sam Wong (played by Jet Li) discovers that he's entering the final stages of an advanced terminal illness. In normal circumstances, Wong would simply go about spending some quality time of shoring up his own personal affairs; however, he must put the desire to square up his relationships aside in order to place all of his effort into securing some reasonable future for his 22-year-old son, David (Lunmei Kwai), a victim of autism so severe that he lacks anything resembling a normal existence and quite possibly won't survive independently. With no other family or institution available to assist with this highly personal challenge, Wong fights an uphill struggle to connect once-and-for-all with the boy in a way that can give him half-a-chance to live in a world he's always at odds with.
The film opens with a sequence - I won't go into any specifics here so that I don't spoil it for any viewers - that I found a bit off-putting. It isn't the sequence itself that I found a bit problematic - it's a fact that, in the scope of time, I was at a loss to understand what had legitimately `happened' at the opening until a bit later in the film. (Trust me: once you see the film, I have no doubt you'll probably understand what I'm referencing.) It's a small quibble, but I think it should've been either handled a bit differently or given a better explanation earlier than it does; there are hints, but it's never fully explained until later than I believed was helpful to the narrative. What it did (for me) was throw me for a loop: I am watching these events in their proper chronology or is the picture `as a flashback'? To my delight, it worked out the way I hoped - no harm, no foul - but, as I stated, I believe it could've been handled better. Who knows? It may even have been something lost in the film's translation (subtitles).
That small quibble aside, OCEAN HEAVEN is nothing short of pure cinematic brilliance.
In his hands as David, Kwai embodies so much of the picture with an infectiously youthful innocence. Director Xiaolu clearly goes to great lengths to capture how David's perspective on the larger world outside flavors so much of the young man's perceptions. To be precise, Xiaolu even tries - to great effect - to display "how" David sees the world, positioning the camera to record what the young man's exact visual impressions would be. In the hands of a lesser director, it could have all ended up more than a bit maudlin - an aggressive film-school narrative trick unintentionally demeaning the `affliction du jour' - but it works here, winningly, and that's because of respectful attention given to the material. As David's counterpoint - presenting the point-of-view which most movie watchers will identify with - Li gives an exceptionally convincing performance as the troubled father. Clearly, this aquarium worker has lived a humble life - one entirely dedicated to raising his boy after the death of the mother. This grounding in reality - in the hands of man who accomplishes `fixing' things but yet can't even begin to understand how to `fix' his child - gives OCEAN HEAVEN the chance to not so much be an advocacy picture in support of treating autism so much as it sticks to a central theme no one can find controversy in: at all times, be a good parent. So much of the father/son relationship works here because the two characters remain `committed' to one another in this crippled reality - both are shown struggling to find their respective voices instead of securing a grand solution suitable for a motion picture audience. It's always poignant. It's always relevant. It's always reverential to that central struggle, not the players, and that's why it excels on so many levels.
The production is impressive. The director put a tremendous amount of work in securing not only a certain look but, as well, a certain environment for the story, and it's photography beautifully. Colors are rich and vibrant when needed, and they're necessarily muted when the story calls for it. Sound presentation is equally important, and no expense has been shared. It's a top notch production given a top notch pressing here. There's a brief `making of' featurette - essentially a series of intercut interviews - and trailers, but nothing else.
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION. I went into this one with, seriously, very little expectations. I mean ... Jet Li? In a dramatic role ... as a single father suffering a terminal illness? It's nothing short of wonderful - if not heart-wrenchingly so at times - a brilliant story of one man's acceptance of the fact that connecting with his autistic son may not only mean bringing the son into his world but also having the courage and conviction to live forever in the boy's world.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD screener copy of OCEAN HEAVEN for the expressed purposes of writing this review.