Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Ocean Heaven [***1/2]
Following the rather stunning one-two punch of Jackie Chan's performances in The Shinjuku Incident and The Karate Kid that proved there was more to Chan than just being an adept physical performer, Jet Li follows up his turn in The Expendables with Ocean Heaven, as the cancer stricken single father of an autistic son. Like Chan and Shinjuku, Ocean eschews his typical gifts, but allows Li to deliver a strong and nuanced character that packs a punch in its own right.
If this premise sounds like it is designed specifically to tug at your heart strings and make you cry then chances are it probably will. If you take a gander at the poster above you can see Jet Li's face, he looks like a man with a depth of patience and understanding and you can practically see his halo as he smiles through the pain of his cancer. Li doesn't disappoint, he really embodies that saintly fellow of eternal patience. I suppose it's worth noting that he looks like a dude whose ass you could kick but don't want to because his smile is so adorable.
The movie is not about cheap sentiment despite a premise with an inherent minimum handkerchief limit. It takes the time to address some real concerns that Wang has. His son, Dafu, is twenty-one and severely autistic. I'll admit that because of TV's Parenthood and the movie Adam I was expecting a high functioning Asperger's Syndrome afflictee because I, somehow, forgot for a moment that other kinds of autism existed. If only The Shield were still around to remind me of such things (because, apparently, I learn nothing from actual life experience). Without his father's guidance Dafu has no way of taking care of himself so Wang spends his free time at work calling orphanages, mental care facilities, nursing homes and schools for the disabled wondering what exactly can be done. Dafu has the burden of being both too old and too young for the state to take care of him. Dafu's apparent unteachableness is magnified in numerous situations and you begin to feel, like Wang, exhausted.
Who knew that knowing you were dying had so much politics involved?
I imagine it's tough knowing you're going to die soon without really having a clear sense, in spite of preparation, of any sort of emotional or financial straits you may leave your family in. It's probably worse for anyone to whom the concept of death may be ungraspable and I think that Jet Li and the screenwriter have given these questions due consideration and created a very honest movie about death. It's so honest I don't know whether to cry or get my affairs in order. I honestly feel like I don't have time for the former.
Honestly, as good as Jet Li is and he's good enough to be considered for a Hong Kong film award, he is eclipsed by Zhang Wen who plays Dafu. Dafu appears to never be paying attention to his father, content to let everything be done for him while he pays attention to his few obsessions: swimming, dolphins, juggling, hide and seek and a girl. In a role with very little dialogue, Wen is able to convey his feelings with a series of finger twitches and a particular way of walking. Those gestures mean he is content or evened out while any shifts into anger can still be portrayed with screaming or crying jags. Wen never displays any sense of an actor playing a part, he lives and breathes the character and gives the character a sense of understanding we might not have thought possible. I don't mean to sound like those with certain severe forms of autism are incapable of higher thought, but until the film's final twenty minutes I didn't know if he'd ever understand the gravity of his situation. He seems to have gotten it, though. And not only gotten it but understood the magnitude all along. I like to think that Dafu's initial refusal to listen was an attempt to hold on to his father because if he doesn't understand then who will take care of him? You can't take him away, right? It wouldn't be fair.
The best thing about Ocean Heaven is that it never stops exploring or probing its deeper questions. The movie could've milked you for tears or taken you on a bullshit series of misadventures, but the movie isn't eager to throw caution to the wind. It addresses questions of legacy when it isn't dealing with the red tape of dying on a time table. The rare moments in the film when Dafu and Wang find themselves separated allows us to see the unconscious influence they've exerted over each other all these years. Wang stands in his son's favorite hiding place one night as if he expects, like Dafu does, that the other will materialize out of thin air. My favorite, of course, is the triumph represented by the moment when Dafu finally moves his stuffed dog from atop the television without having to be told.
Ocean Heaven is a simple story told with remarkable care and precision. It's not just about what it means to be a parent or a son, but about what we carry with us when one leg of the journey is over and the next one begins.