Judge Patrick Rogers chooses to recreate his own reality where Jet Li never made any films in America.
"I'm all he has left. If I die, who will take care of him?"
It was a sad day when Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), one of the greatest martial arts stars to come out of China, announced Fearless would be his last wushu epic and that he would start to focus more on personal and dramatic roles. The fact that the director's cut of Fearless was one of Jet Li's best films in over a decade only made the news harder to swallow. In the six years since, all I've seen of Li are a smattering of cheesy American action films and the very well structured period war epic The Warlords.
Now that we have a chance to see Ocean Heaven, was Li's "retirement" from his bread and butter worth it?
Very much so, surprisingly.
Ocean Heaven is about Wang Xincheng, a kind and humble man who juggles working in the local aquarium with looking after his 21-year-old autistic son, Dafu (Wen Zhang, The Sorcerer and the White Snake). Xincheng has all the love in the world for his son, continually infusing basic skills and lessons so the boy may one day be able to take care of himself. For you see Xincheng is slowly dying and, while he sees the beauty of nature and youth in Dafu's eyes, it torments him to know that he will soon leave this world and his son to the harsh reality of day-to-day living.
Ocean Heaven is a film that, by all accounts, should not work. On the surface, the story is about as emotionally hollow as a Paul Haggis (Crash) film; one of those narratives with a paint-by-numbers structure specifically engineered to make you cry because of its shallow and manipulative dramatic beats. After all, this about a terminally ill father with an autistic child.
On top of that, Jet Li's aptitude has long been in quiet and contemplative characters, with a simmering undercurrent of visceral fury that blossoms once they've been pushed past the brink. Dramatic acting not wrapped around a martial arts core is not in his wheelhouse. At least we never thought it was. With Ocean Heaven, Li proves he knows how to engage an audience dramatically without having to resort to mugging or cheap baiting tactics. The same can't be said for a lot of dramatic acting, which swings for the fences while chucking every last trope at the wall to see what sticks. While not an absolute revelation in this role, Li's character is still incredibly believable in the way he tries to balance a stern hand with a loving heart.
In the role of Dafu, Wen Zhang is neither phenomenal nor sub-standard. While I never felt he truly made the character his own, Zhang at least doesn't resort to clowning for the camera or chewing the scenery as some sort of misguided attempt at capturing the intricacies of autism like so many actors before him.
While first time director (and also the film's screenwriter) Xiao Lu Xue's style is inconsistent and sloppy, he is backed by the beautifully blue-tinged cinematography of Christopher Doyle (2046), combining a sense of drab melancholia with an intimate vibrancy of the natural world.
Sadly, Ocean Heaven cannot overcome the feeling of familiarity and predictability that begins to creep in as the film goes along. There's nothing truly original or imaginative in the film to make it stand out from better films of the same ilk. That's not to say it isn't an effective and worthy addition to the genre or Jet Li's oeuvre.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, the transfer is quite serviceable, though the visuals do struggle with black levels. The detail and clarity of Christopher Doyle's cinematography is brought out in all its splendor with the blue hues of the film really standing out. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is relatively weak in the back channels, mainly tasked with faintly reproducing the film's score, but the dialogue and music in the front is crisp. When it comes to subdued dramas, we can't really ask for more. Bonus features are scant: a medium length making-of featurette, one that doesn't really contain anything substantial or informative; and a host of trailers for other Well Go USA releases.
Ocean Heaven is a heartbreaking tale about family, fatherly duty, love, and the harsh reality of the world we live in. Regardless of inconsistent quality, it still has the ability to elicit tears.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
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