Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
We often think of action star Jet Li as Mr Indestructible, given his long-cultivated hero persona across numerous roles, from Wong Fei Hong to Fong Sai Yuk to Huo Yuanjia.
He has played several Chinese folk heroes and is himself an unequivocal living legend and Asian cinematic icon. In the last decade in particular, he has stressed his desire to be taken seriously as an actor, not just a kung-fu guy (although his iron fists and lightning kicks are indelible in fans' minds).
Li finally received positive notices for his role as a merciless general in The Warlords, and as Huo in the film Fearless, after which he declared his ostensible retirement as a martial-arts action star.
Ocean Heaven, a well-made, emotionally charged father-son drama, will go a long way in cementing Li's credibility as a so-called 'serious actor'; it is a sensitively put-together film, tender and bittersweet, which earns the involvement and tears of audiences with a rather simple, sincere story.
In the film, Li is a humble middle-aged widower named Wong who frets about the fate of his autistic 21-year-old son. Even though it is par for the course in this kind of film that the father is stricken by a terminal disease, director Xue Xiao-Lu's film never comes across as indulgent or exploitative.
If we are cynical, we can point out that the film looks a little too good. Wen Zhang, who plays Wong's son, comes off as a handsome, somewhat harmless, and child-like autistic character, complete with a trademark tic where his hand flutters, presumably mimicking a fin through water.
His autism manifests in cute ways: he often repeats what others say, stares into space, and enjoys childish pranks and habits. There is never an occasion, such as found in Rain Man or The Black Balloon, whereby the condition leads to dangerous or alarming acts of violence.
Much of the film is set in the calming environs of a marine park, which overlooks a picturesque beach-front area – the son is able to swim in the tanks, as his father works as the park's technician – and there is also a pretty girl (Kuei Lunmei, recently seen in Taipei Exchanges) who is a nominal love interest for Wong's son.
For all the quibbles, the fact remains that this is an absorbing and effective film, elevated by its inhabitants, characters who appear to be living, breathing human beings faced with everyday battles, with Wong dignified and unflagging in his commitment to his mission: to find a reliable institution to care long-term for his son.
The performances are earnest and arresting, with the director holding everything together nicely; scenes begin, develop and conclude neatly, in a logical manner, and restraint is shown where it is often lacking in lesser films.
There is no need to squeeze tears and emotion out of audiences. Watching Wong tirelessly seek places for his son, while enduring obvious pain – he has late-stage liver cancer – and refusing to impose on others is touching in and of itself, and not at all maudlin.
Li has a real plump role here. He has pain and sorrow, he has fatherly pride when his son starts to learn how to take care of himself, and he has lines of rich irony to spout when he assess his predicament.
In one scene, as his search seems doomed to fail, he laments how his son is unfortunately too old for an orphanage, yet too young for a retirement home.
It is one of the many moments in this rich movie-going experience where you'll feel like laughing and crying, and wishing you could give Li's – for once – hardly invincible character a big, warm hug.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.