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Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂)

For a film that was simply labeled as "Jet Li's first non-action movie," "Ocean Heaven" (海洋天堂) carries a larger message than just Jet Li's departure from martial arts.

In "Ocean Heaven," Li plays Wang Xuechang, a terminally ill father of an autistic child, Dafu, played by Wen Zhang (文章). In hopes of teaching Dafu basic life skills before he dies, Wang dedicates every ounce of will he has to his son.     

The movie begins with an ominous scene, as Wang and Dafu set out to sea. While in their small boat, Wang ties both Dafu and himself to a concrete anchor and jumps into the water. Wang's plan to drown himself and his son is foiled as Dafu is an excellent swimmer and frees both himself and his father from a watery death. Without context, Wang's attempt at a murder-suicide is appalling. However, with Dafu unable to take care of himself and no one willing to carry on the burden of caring for him, Wang believes death is the best way to minimize Dafu's pain.

Once Wang and Dafu return to their home in Qingdao, Wang continues his search to find Dafu appropriate housing. However, his search proves to be even more difficult as his liver cancer becomes more serious.

Seemingly on the brink of death, Wang needs the help of his neighbor Aunt Chai, played by Zhu Yuanyuan (朱媛媛), to help take care of Dafu. Filled with compassion and sympathy for Wang, Chai wants to take care of Dafu in a more maternal role and proposes marriage to Wang. Unwilling to let Chai sacrifice her future for the sake of Dafu, Wang turns down Chai's offer of union. Through these scenes, Li and Zhu give compelling performances that allow the audience to embrace Wang and Chai's emotional conditions.

Complementing Wang and Chai's magnificent acting is Christopher Doyle (杜可風)'s cinematography that turned ordinary underwater scenes into majestic liquid worlds. As a maintenance clerk at a local aquarium, Wang is allowed to bring Dafu along to work. Having bonded with the sea animals using his superior swimming skills, Dafu is asked to play with animals on a regular basis as an aquarium staff member. Playing with sea creatures in a rich blue texture, Dafu seems to have found his element and Doyle's expert cinematography immerses the audience in Dafu's reality.

As moving and visually stunning as this movie is, there are weak points. For one, cast as the main actress in this movie, Kwai Lun-mei (桂綸鎂) plays a temporary circus performer at the aquarium, who strikes up a friendship with Dafu. With no depth to the relationship, the storyline seems unnatural as director-writer Xue Xiaolu (薛曉路) tries to force a romantic scenario between the two.

Li's performance as an ordinary man with no particular talent will have audiences forgetting that he is actually a martial arts legend, but his acting skill is not at the center of this movie. The core of this story is the sentimental tale of Wang and Dafu, which depicts the everlasting love that a father has for his son.

► Directed by Xue Xiaolu / With Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Kwai Lun-mei and Zhu Yuanyuan / Drama / China / 2010 / 102 min. / Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles / ★★★★☆ / Now Showing

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