Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed and written by Xue Xiao Lu
Produced by EDKO Film
China, 2010, 94 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
Ocean Heaven, a film that takes place in Qingdao, China, is about a father dying from cancer and his 22-year-old autistic son who, once his father passes away, will have no one to take care of him. It’s a slightly older film and was written and directed by Xue Xiao Lu who has had extensive experience helping those with autism. In many ways this was a passion project for her, to raise awareness and to help the audience gain a greater understanding of what provisions are available for such cases in China.
The film stars martial-arts star Jet Li, in his first dramatic role, as the father. His son is played by Wen Zhang who won an award at the Shanghai International Film Festival for this performance. The story is simple—so it’s less about what takes place, and more about how it takes place.
Here’s what the film does well:
- Introduces the daily realities of those living with autism and their caregivers, as well. Much of the film shows the interactions between father and son as he teaches his grown son how to take a bus, count money, crack an egg, unlock a door, etc.
- Maintains a hopeful, non-depressing tone. Naturally there are moments of frustration but overall the audience is not overwhelmed or burdened.
- Covers the details well. Whether it be the interactions between characters and the subtlety of the unspoken, or in the demonstration of behavioural struggles, the small things do not go unnoticed.
But here’s what the film does not do so well:
- The reality is well presented for an introductory level of awareness but is kept at a surface level. There’s a lot more that could be presented with greater depth.
- Characters are too ideal. Everyone behaves perfectly, as you would hope. Even those who discriminate against the young man only do so in a mild manner.
- It rides the middle. Perhaps there were sensitivities that had to be considered, like not presenting China’s limited provisions so blatantly. But in playing it safe, it wasn’t memorable.
Overall, the film is appropriate as a wholesome, feel-good watch as it informs and raises awareness in a pleasant way, but not great for social commentary as it lacks edge in story, tone, and delivery.
But all of this made me think about the greater social sector in China. The social sector in China is certainly growing, but the need is still much greater than what can be met. Furthermore, there is the cultural stigma attached to those with special needs. Fear of shame and embarrassment in these things mean it’s rarely talked about or, in many cases, even known.
And I came away with a bigger question, “What will compel local Chinese to become more aware of social needs within their country and be motivated to help?”
Will it be through feel-good movies that can present issues in a non-intimidating way?
Will it be through stark, realistic documentary-like story-telling?
Will it be through government communication?
It’s a complicated question, and one that the government is probably already asking. It involves considering social class, culture, educational background, and many other factors.
But perhaps this question should also be asked by China’s church. As the church endeavors to act as the hands and feet of Christ and to make an impact in Chinese society, it will need to think about how to effectively rally those around them to help serve those Jesus refers to as the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
I hope everyone can examine what is the most important relationship in life—the relationship between parent and child, . . . I met some autistic children last year when I was doing charity work. When I read the script, I cried, I hope to express gratitude to all the parents in the world through the film. —Jet Li
Image credit: Ocean Heaven trailer.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio