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The story of a father's tireless love for his autistic son. A terminally ill father's attempt to teach his autistic son the necessary life skills to survive on his own before he passes away. It is also a poignant tribute to the infinite love that parents have for their children and their unending desire to take care and look after them to their best abilities, no matter the struggle, no matter the effort. Written by
Ocean Heaven is an intriguing movie for several reasons: 1. It portrays a young man with autism, who also shows emotion; 2. We see a sanitized view of modern day China and how disability is supposedly supported by average citizens and the state; and, 3. A terminally ill father struggles with finding support for his son.
Each theme is a separate review I'm sure. I really did not want to like this film, and as a previous reviewer suggested, I was also prepared to turn my nose up after the opening dramatic scene. But I kept going with it. I'm glad I did.
The actor who portrays the young man with autism is actually quite believable. He gets the gestures just right, the mannerisms, the vocalizations,and the expressions. Having known people with autism--all across the spectrum--for thirty years now, I was amazed at how nuanced this performance was, and it did not fall into the mistakes of stereotypical portrayals, such as Rain Man. It worked. His emotional side, based on fear of the unknown, was handled well, as was his father's reactions to him.
The setting for the movie was another aspect of the film that captivated my interest. It is no secret that having a disability in Chinese society is complicated; there is stigma attached to the family, not much support in terms of formal schooling, and even less for social services in the community. It is not discussed, and rarely revealed. Most newborns with obvious disabilities (such as Down syndrome) are routinely abandoned in the hospital and left to die. So why this sudden sympathetic portrayal? Did China undergo a transformation after hosting the Special Olympics in 2008? They did, after all, implement a national policy of "be nice to people with disabilities" in preparation for those games.
The natural supports for Dafu (son) were all around him, if his father would only look. The character of "auntie Chai" totally got Dafu. She could have enlisted his work ethic in her store. He already had a "job" swimming with the fish and sea mammals at the aquarium. We saw scenes of him being one with the water and marine life. And so on. But the film takes us on a trip to see Chinese institutional care, segregated schools, and missed opportunities for true inclusion in his community.
There are side stories that don't advance the film, such as the circus troupe and the film star clown who juggles. The metaphor of the circus outsiders (some would also equate them to freak shows) accepting Dafu is an old cliché that wasn't necessary. Another side story that is not developed deals with his deceased Mother, who apparently could not handle the truth of her son's autism. There are veiled references to her untimely death as a suicide.
Now the story has legs. The real issue that is presented is that it is understandable, and even acceptable for a parent to intentionally kill their child with a disability. Pity the poor parents, who have to endure the shame and burden of a child with a disability. This is how most people really feel. In fact, there is societal support for parents who murder their child out of pity. In Canada there is a famous case of Robert Latimer, a father from Saskatchewan, who murdered his daughter Tracy because she had cerebral palsy. Most Canadians thought Mr. Latimer a sympathetic figure, not deserving jail time for his crime. There are numerous instances of children and adults with autism who end up dead at the hands of a caregiver or family member. Check out the website notdeadyet for further reporting on this subject.
So the opening scene, where Dafu chooses life for himself and his father is quite dramatic, and likely the best evidence of Dafu's intellect, emotion, and will to live. It is also a tribute to all those other people with disabilities who do not get to choose how their life unfolds, whether in China, or anywhere else.
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