The marketing for this film went into overdrive with its touting of this being action star Jet Li's first dramatic role. Unless you count his appearance in a non combative role in The Founding of a Republic and the various attempts to balance his action status with more dramatic acting chops such as Danny the Dog/Unleashed, then Ocean Heaven will be that maiden effort. Written and directed by Xue Xiao Lu, this modest effort is by no means small in ambition, having the likes of Jay Chou and Kwai Lun Mei lend their vocals to separate title tracks (with Kwai also starring in the film), as well as being lensed by the renowned Christopher Doyle.
Jet Li stars as Wang, a middle aged technician at Qingdao's Ocean World who discovers that his liver cancer is at its 4th stage, and a medical death sentence has been passed, giving him 3 to 4 months to live. His prime concern will be that of his autistic son Da Fu (Wen Zhang) because this means as the main caregiver, he has to find an able, trusted replacement, most likely an institution, but as any single parent can attest to, this effort is none too easy in the absence of direct family support, with places like mental institutions being totally out of place, and Da Fu being too old for an orphanage, and too young for a senior citizens' home. The film opens with a father-son suicide, only for the latter to inexplicably save the both of them, and bringing them back to the drawing board.
It's interesting to note (at least for me) that the Chinese language term for Autism is “Gu Du Zheng” which directly translates to a condition of loneliness. Through the film, Wang cannot shake off the fact that this figuratively applies to him, being alone in his care of his teenage son for many years since the passing of his wife, and not wanting to impose his troubles and issues on others, such as his neighbour and provision shop owner (Zhu Yuanyuan) who undoubtedly has affections for Wang himself. Wang is the classical stoic Chinese man who bottles up his troubles, seeking instead to source for solutions himself than to rely on the graces of others, although help does come from an understanding boss, as well as Da Fu's school principal.
Xue spends considerable screen time in outlining the father-son relationship, albeit that it's not quite the norm because communication almost always seem like a one way street. Wang, with his limited, time, wants to train Da Fu in performing simple tasks in looking after himself, from cooking to taking the public bus, and through many of these scenes, Xue has allowed for an awareness of autism to ring through without resorting to overreliance on melodrama to do so. Tasks are to be explained with extreme patience, and knowledge imparted through constant rote learning and praising. It's not easy, but as any parent, this unconditional love is something that's quite innate.
Both Jet Li and Wen Zhang share great chemistry, which helps make their individual performance credible. You'll for once feel as exasperated as Li since this time he cannot kung-fu kick his way out of challenges and troubles, and have to rely on perseverance and love to educate his son. You'll feel his pain, and share his pessimism and slim hopes that he'll be able to impart, delegate and leave behind enough for his son not only material wealth, but emotional stability as well, which comes in the form of a sea turtle motif, known for its longevity, Wen Zhang too has this child like quality in his portrayal of autism which endears, and is able to bring out the confusion, fear and anger when he is not understood by others.
The only peculiar performance here will be that of Kwai Lun Mei's Ling Ling, whose role is that of a clown who juggles. I can't place her role anywhere other than to solely beef up the star attraction to this film, because her role and the subplots involving her character all seem a little out of place and useless, and can be done without. Perhaps it is just there to balance that sense of bleak from Wang's point of view, since scenes between Ling Ling and Da Fu mostly hinges on play and friendship, providing that lift to the audience, unbeknownst to Wang, that his son is capable of making new, genuine friends, and that he need not worry that Da Fu will eventually be alone in this world after Wang's own passing.
I won't say this is a tearjerker, but there will be those who will inevitably be touched by Father's love, going by the amount of sniffles in the cinema hall. I suppose Jet Li's foray into a purely dramatic role is quite successful, although personally I can't wait to see him kick serious ass in The Expendables with an ensemble cast of action heroes where he belongs. But of course one can't go on forever in such a role. Maybe he too can adopt the Jackie Chan direction (I'm pretty sure they would have exchanged notes during their pairing in The Forbidden Kingdom) where a film role balancing drama and action is possible ala Chan's Little Big Soldier, or even following what Clint Eastwood is doing in going behind the camera to tell heartfelt stories.