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February 03, 2012

Ocean Heaven

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Haiyang tiantang
Xue Xiao Lu - 2010
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

I wasn't quite prepared for the first shot of Jet Li in Ocean Heaven. I've been watching Li for about fifteen years, a combination of Chinese language and English language films, on the big screen and home screen. It could be the combination of the glasses and the flecks of white hair along his temples that did it, but Li looks so vulnerable. There was the sense that it wouldn't take much to knock over this guy, sitting in a small boat with his adult son.

At the very least, one gets a chance to see Li stretch his dramatic muscles as he approaches age 50. And give him credit for foregoing a paycheck to make the film. And even though Li is the most well known name, and the person most responsible for bringing attention to the film, he also surrender most of the attention to young Wen Zhang, the actor playing his son.

This is the second film written, and the first directed by Xue Xaio Lu. The previous film was Together, directed by Chen Kaige. What the two films share is a story line about a father and a son, and their uneasy relationship. In this film, Li plays a father, Xingchang, of an autistic young man, Dafu, who just turned 21. Xingchang is trying to minimize the effects what is revealed to be terminal cancer, while at the same time trying to find a future home for Dafu. Xingchang does maintenance at an aquarium where Dafu enjoys swimming with the dolphins, hence the title.

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The film follow Xingchang's attempts to get Dafu to develop some independence, and a few life skills. Along the way, a traveling circus takes up residence at the aquarium, the equivalent of Sea World in Quingdao. Dafu temporarily becomes friends with a juggling clown, his first attempt at socializing on his own.

Xingchang and Dafu visit various potential institutions for Dafu's care. One very striking image takes place in a facility where the patients wear striped pajamas. The visual reference to a concentration camp is not hard to miss.

Li's involvement in the film may have been what attracted several other major names to participate in the modestly budgeted production. The casually framed cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. Kwai Lunmei plays the sad clown who befriends Dafu. Joe Hisaishi provided the film score. Having Jay Chou sing during the closing credits here is comparable to having Madonna providing vocals for a million dollar independent film stateside. Ocean Heaven may end up being better known for showcasing Wen Zhang, noted here for his goofy grin and fluttering fingers on his left hand. In one scene, Wen is dancing by himself in the rain, doing a little strut that made me think of Charlie Chaplin. The swimming scenes indicate a litheness suggesting that this young actor has more to show given the right opportunities.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 3, 2012 08:59 AM