I only knew Jet Li from his action movies. Until now, I was completely blind to the fact that he is also a fully capable dramatic actor. I believed that the only reason he was in movies to begin with was because he's a badass when it comes to martial arts. If you haven't yet learned the extent of Li's acting capabilities, then you really need to see 'Ocean Heaven.'
In it, Li plays Wong, the widowed father of a 21-year-old son with autism named Dofu (Kwai Lun Mei). The film begins with Wong and Dofu sitting in a small fishing boat in a calm harbor not far from the shore. After a few moments of silence, we see Wong tie each end of a rope to their legs and wrap it around a large rusty chunk of heavy metal. Both hop into the ocean and the trailing rope pulls the anvil in after them in this suicidal opening sequence.
After the opening credits, we see Wong and Dofu return to their small apartment, Wong with a look of defeat on his face. He picks up a suicide letter left on the table for his housekeeper just moments before she comes knocking on the door. After stashing it, he opens the door for her, claiming that the two reek and that she's surprised to see them home from their "vacation" so soon. Little needs to be said in this opening sequences to convey the feeling that something is very wrong.
Wong has been raising Dofu alone since his wife's tragic swimming accident nearly 18 years earlier. Because Dofu requires almost constant supervision, Wong has inherited the nurturing characteristics of a mother. He's patient with Dofu and takes his time to try teaching him. Wong works at an aquarium and has a boss who understands the situation, allowing Dofu to tag along and swim in the tanks all day long.
As peaceful as their lifestyle appears, there's still the lingering mood from the disturbing intro. Wong is a great man – but why would he try killing himself and his completely innocent son? Before long we learn the reason.
Wong has terminal liver cancer. With Dofu being in his twenties, no orphanage will take him, and he's not old enough to get into an old folk's home. With a long deceased mother, there will be no one to take care of Dofu once his father passes away. In Wong's mind, Dofu would be better off dying with his dad since he'll eventually die on his own. The dichotomy that comes into play is this: does Wong attempt another joint suicide, does he relentlessly try teaching Dofu the ways of the world, or does he continue to search for a facility that will care for him?
At first glance, 'Ocean Heaven' sounds like a manipulative family drama – but while you're watching it, it never feels that way. The credit for this goes to three people: Jet Li, Kwai Lun Mei and writer/director Xue Xiaolu. Li's performance is silent yet strong. He plays the widowed father the same way that I'd imagine this tragic position to be in reality. Kwai Lun Mei isn't autistic and he doesn't play up the stereotypes of having autism. Like Jet Li's performance, his is also subtle – which makes it even more effective and powerful. And having spent so much time volunteering in care centers, Xue Xiaolu deals with the touchy subject matter in a genuine and honest manner. It's handled with intimate and touching delicacy, never using the cheap tricks of a disease-centric film to stir up the audience's emotion.
'Ocean Heaven' isn't the best film I've ever seen, but it's one worth considering if you're looking for a change of pace.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA has given 'Ocean Heaven' a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The two-disc blue vortex keepcase houses a Region A-locked BD-25 and a DVD-9. The FBI warning and Well Go vanity reel that play before the main menu are not skippable, but you can jump right over the trailers for '1911,' 'The Stool Pigeon' and 'The Man from Nowhere.'
'Ocean Heaven' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. While this isn't the best-looking video quality, it isn't the worst either. It's sharper than a DVD, but doesn't hold a candle to new Blu-ray releases.
The transfer is mostly clean, tiny white specks only occurring on very rare occasions - but the picture isn't very sharp or defined. The detail that we all like to see isn't there. A little amount of film grain is visible and several shots feature digital noise.
Black levels are decent and shadows are well-delineated. Colors and fleshtones are natural and lifelike. Skin carries a realistic color, as do the frequent blues of massive tanks of water – never appearing amplified or overly vibrant.
Edge enhancement and DNR aren't used. Artifacts aren't an issue, nor is aliasing – probably due to the fact that the image isn't all that sharp. Halos are visible a few times and very slight banding arises during a couple of the many fade-ins and -outs.
Two Mandarin Chinese tracks are available to choose from: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. I, of course, recommend the Master Audio.
'Ocean Heaven' isn't the type of film with audio that inspires "oohs" and "wows," but it features a clean, clear and well-balanced mix. There's never an occasion for imaging and any time the rear and surround channels are used, it's to establish a nice ambiance. Whenever we're at the aquarium, we hear the background sounds of pumps and lightly splashing surface water. As Dofu swims around, we hear the sounds of marine life, like dolphin chirps. Although the majority of the sound is located in the front, the environmental sounds make subtle use of all channels.
The music also tends to put all channels to work, but is definitely front-heavy. The blend of music, vocals and effects never causes one or the other to step on another's toes. You can always hear what's being said (even if it is in Mandarin Chinese) and the great scoring is always clear. Bass, however, isn't very strong.
I'm not typically a fan of disease-centered dramas because they usually tend to use the illness as a convenient tool to strike up emotions, but 'Ocean Heaven' never once comes across that way. From beginning to end, it feels honest and genuine. Watching a dying father troubled with knowing that he's about to leave his simple-minded son helpless and alone in the world is the most heart-wrenching aspect of the film. Despite not featuring the greatest video and audio qualities and only having one short set of interviews as special features, 'Ocean Heaven' is still worthy of your time.