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Original Title:
Haiyang tiantang

China 2010


Xiao Luxue

Jet Li
Wen Zhang
Zhu Yuanyuan
Kwai Lunmei
Dong Yong
Gao Yuanyuan
Chen Ran
Yong Mei

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Ocean Heaven

Story: Wang Xingchang (Jet Li) is a single father of an autistic son. While Wang earns his money in an aquarium he also has to keep an eye on his son Dafu (Wen Zhang) who he takes with him to work for this purpose. Dafu can't do anything by himself, but he is an exceptionally good swimmer and spends as much time as possible in the aquarium. However, one day Wang finds out that he hasn't much time to live. He decides to take his and his son's life since he doesn't want his son to suffer alone when he isn't around anymore. As his attempt fails Dafu's father believes that he has to make all the necessary arrangements after all before he can't take care of his autistic child anymore. Unfortunately, no institution wants to take in the autist and so Wang's search continues. While his neighbour Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) is always a great help to him Dafu makes friends with the circus girl Lingling (Kwai Lunmei). But Wang's state of health becomes worse by the day...

Review: A family drama from China with Jet Li in the main lead. That's something you need to digest first. Eventually, you have to give kudos to the director for giving the martial arts expert the chance to prove himself in a role that is working on a completely different level than his usual characters. "Ocean Heaven" is a born-and-bred drama without one single kung fu insertion and, this is the best part, it also is a really good drama! Mainly because of Jet Li's acting achievement as the desperate family man who is willing to do anything to know that his son is taken care of after his death. The only thing that you can accuse "Ocean Heaven" of is that it is pretty manipulative in the depiction of the drama. But that's fine since it works exceptionally well with the emotions.

The drama takes its time to flesh out the relationship between father and son. Wang loves his son more than anything else and he has the responsibility to take care of him twenty-four-seven. A responsibility that he not once in his life abdicated from. Self-sacrificingly he lives is life solely for Dafu but even this he isn't allowed to do anymore. He finds out that he is about to die from liver cancer. Not even for one second we see him indulge in self-pity. His only concern is who will be taking care of Dafu later. It's a race against time and the blows of fate that he has to endure make him an extremely tragical figure. Even the initial scene when Wang wants to drown himself and his son in the sea becomes understandable with time and we can't reproach him with this very human way of behavior.

In the end Wang tries to teach his son as much as possible so that he can live without his help. Wang reminds us of the protagonist in the Korean drama "Christmas in August" and there are also some other parallels to be found, but Jet Li shows his feelings more often. In a subtle manner, though. That's also the difficult part of his role, but Jet Li masters it without any problems. What he often was allowed to hint at is now attested by all critics: Li can act and he even manages to do so very well! Aside from him Wen Zhang also delivers a convincing portrayal. He embodies the autist very well and even became a great swimmer for his role. His dependency on his father is brought to screen very well, too, and so the movie's heart is without a doubt the relationship between father and son.

Thanks to the very good chemistry between the two characters the dramatic scenes are moving as well. The editing of the movie seems rather odd at times, but it also makes "Ocean Heaven" stand out from other works. Furthermore, the events are at all times accompanied by a great soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, which to be honest puts itself too much into the foreground at some points, though. Apart from that first-time director Xiao Luxue, who already co-wrote Chen Kaige's "Together", knows very well how to let the simple pictures of his movie do the talking. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love", "Hero") also will have had a share in achieving that. The supporting characters like Chai, who under different circumstances would have shared a romantic relationship with Wang, aren't obtrusive at all but instead enrich the movie by more facets. The same goes for Lingling's short appearance.

It is tragic to watch Wang prepare his son for the soon to come goodbye while Dafu is living in his very own world and can't really understand what is happening around him. Every now and then he actually does understand, however, and those are the moments that are especially touching. At some points it is obvious beforehand what the director is aiming for but he is doing so with such a sensitiveness that it doesn't become a bother at all. Especially not since he has such a great cast at his disposal. Moreover, he also doesn't torment us with a prolonged dying scene of Wang but avoids the typical problems of a drama. "Ocean Heaven" feels incredibly honest and works because of its sweet sadness that warms your heart and rips it apart. Simply a beautiful drama.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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