[For the next two weeks, Alec will be covering select films from the New York Asian Film Festival. For complete coverage of the festival, make sure to check out the page for the tag "NYAFF11." Keep watching throughout the weeks as we bring you more reviews!]
When you think of Jet Li, you think of pulse-pounding action and bad-ass martial arts. You don't think of a drama about the difficulties of dealing with autism. And why would you? Action stars are rarely good actors, and star-driven dramas are quite often terrible. Fortunately, Jet Li is a fantastic actor, and Ocean Heaven is an amazing drama.
Let's get this out of the way: Ocean Heaven made me cry. I don't cry at movies, ever, and certainly not as much as I did while watching this film. For the entire second half of Ocean Heaven, I had tears in my eyes. and with ten-fifteen minutes to go the tears started streaming and did not stop. The story is goddamn heart-wrenching. The film tells the story of Wang Xincheng (Jet Li), a water-park electrican who is dying of liver cancer, and his son Dafu (Wen Zhang), who is severely autistic. Old Wang, as he is called in the movie, is trying to find a way for his son to live after he passes, and spends most of the film trying to teach Dafu how to take care of himself. What happens is alternately devastating and incredibly touching.
The film works for two reasons: the more significant of which is the the performances, especially by Li and Zhang. Li is truly believable as the father, and watching him deteriorate over the film is difficult. It is shocking that this is only his first non-action role, and it is a goddamned shame that he hasn't been in more films. He is truly amazing. Even his performance is overshadowed, though, by that of Wen Zhang. His portrayal of autism is perfect. I absolutely believed that the actor was autistic based on how well he did.
If you have seen Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, you probably think you have seen the greatest portrayal of autism, but you are wrong. As I said, Zhang's performance is absolutely flawless. Speaking only ten lines (although with some repetition) in the entire 90 minutes, he is still able to get across every emotion, despite playing a character who is unable to properly show emotion. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. All of the supporting actors are also fantastic, meaning everyone feels like real people rather than actors.
The second thing that makes the film work is its refusal to dramatize anything. Nothing in the film is hammed up in the slightest. The director (a first timer!) spent fourteen years working with autistic children before making this debut film, and it shows in the complete legitimacy and honesty that is afforded to the film. Every moment that is sad is sad because it feels real. There is nothing haphazardly thrown in to make the audience cry or feel something, it just comes naturally from the story and the performances. The excellent script doesn't hurt either.
As could be expected, the cinematography is beautiful. Much of the film is shot underwater or shot with water, and the way the light bounces around the water park is beautiful. The shots are impressive, with a fluidity that fits with the water-filled aesthetic. Unfortunately, my biggest issue with the film also stems from the cinematography and the editing. Both of those things are done by those who work with the acclaimed Won Kar-wai, and everything I dislike about the visuals in his films I dislike in the visuals here. The unnecessary shifting of shutter speed combined with unnecessary and distracting fade-outs pulled me out of the experience every single time they appeared in the film. This isn't a flaw, though, simply a choice that I disagree with. If you like Won Kar-wai's work, you will think I'm stupid and that this film is among the most visually stunning you have ever seen.
There is honestly nothing else to say about the film. It is the most legitimate portrayal of autism that could possibly exist. The performances are incredible, the direction is amazing, the script is tight, and the subject matter is treated with the utmost respect. Watching the film, you absolutely feel like you are watching a true story as it unfolds, and you will probably never see a film about autism that is better than Ocean Heaven, from any country or in any language, ever.