Friday, February 10, 2012

Reelabilities ’12: Ocean Heaven

Old beyond his years, Wang Xingchang is dying of liver cancer. Fortunately, he can rest easy, secure in the knowledge the People’s Republic will care for his grown autistic son, Dafu. No, not really. Fearing the worst, the desperate widower is planning a final exit for both himself and his son in Xiao Lu Xue’s Ocean Heaven (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Reelabilities Film Festival.

Known as “Old Wang,” Dafu’s middle-aged father works as a handyman at Qingdao’s version of Seaworld. It would seem like a cool job to a young child. Unfortunately, Dafu is still a little boy, emotionally and intellectually. He can swim like a fish though, which is one reason why Old Wang’s attempt to let the sea take them fails. Reluctantly accepting their reprieve, he renews his fruitless search for a humane social service agency that will care for Dafu once he is gone.

Ocean relentlessly goes for the heartstrings anyway it can. While the father-son story is obviously front-and-center, perhaps the most touching scenes involve Madame Chai, the kindly neighbor Old Wang obviously loves but never pursues because of his all consuming commitment to his son. Likewise, the ambiguous friendship Dafu strikes up with Ling Ling, a clown with a visiting circus, is appealingly sweet and innocent. However, the way Ocean puts the dying father through the ringer, forcing him to endure Dafu’s tantrums and stubbornness while suffering increasingly acute physical pain, might be realistic, but it borders on the outright punishing for viewers.

Hailed as Jet Li’s straight-up no-cheating dramatic breakthrough-debut, it showcases the action star quite effectively. Indeed, Li has a genuine Tom Hanks (before he was too full of himself) everyman quality as Old Wang. So convincing as Dafu, reportedly many have erroneously assumed Chinese T V actor Wen Zhang was himself autistic. Given realities, his character can only experience the subtlest of development arcs, which he duly implies with fine nuance. Though her part is rather underwritten, Taiwanese singer-actress Kwai Lun Mei (or Gwei Lun-mei) is a luminous presence as Ling. However, the compassion and open vulnerability of Yuanyuan Zhu’s Madame Chai is truly moving, in an honest and direct way.

Given the subject matter, one can hardly be shocked by Ocean’s brazenly manipulative nature. Still, it is a highly polished production, featuring the typically straight forward yet evocative cinematography of Australian expat Christopher Doyle.

It must be fully acknowledged Jet Li rises to the challenge of such a tear-jerking role. Action fans will also be interested (or frustrated) to know Jay Chou performs one of the soundtrack’s featured songs. Kwai performs the other main theme and adds a serious dose of cuteness to the proceedings. The results might be predictable, but Ocean delivers a real emotional payoff nonetheless. Sheepishly recommended for Kwai’s loyal fans and those curious to see Li flex his acting muscles, Ocean screens again tomorrow (2/11) at venues in Manhattan and Staten Island, as well as this Sunday (2/12) at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, during this year’s Reelabilities Film Festival.