“When you see the turtle, you see dad. I will always be with you and never forsake you.” Wang Xincheng says these final words to his autistic son before dying. This line is from a scene in the movie Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂), China’s first movie addressing the issue of autism. Jet Li, global megastar and philanthropist, plays the father of a teenager with autism in his first non-action movie in the past thirty years.
Recently, Ms. Chen Jie, the director of Qing Cong Quan Autistic School, invited me to watch the film premier. The story centers on Wang (played by Li), a marine park worker diagnosed with terminal cancer who is desperately looking for a place to take care of his autistic son Da Fu before he dies. The movie touches upon the situation of autism in China and the heavy burden that families often face.
For most Chinese people, autism is probably a new concept. The essential characteristics of autism are abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and a restricted repertoire of activities and interests. At present, there are no state-run training or research institutes for autism in China and only a few dozen or so private programs or centers that address the needs of these people. As a result, the vast majority of individuals with autism lack access to basic systematic training and help.
Because autistic children are not able to receive adequate attention and care in Chinese public schools, most have no choice but to stay at home. As a consequence, family-based training and development is the only course of action available. Parents of autistic children start many of the privately owned training and treatment centers in China. These centers tend to be burdened by the overwhelming demand for their services and often have waiting lists of over one year.
At the end of the movie, Wang leaves his son at a family-run autistic training center. But still questions remain that are reflective of the overall situation for people with autism in China: What future does Da Fu have? Will he thrive at the center? And if he doesn’t, are there any other opportunities for him? The movie strangely omits any mention of Wang’s relatives and why he didn’t leave his son under their care, an important point in China’s family-oriented culture. The movie also overemphasizes the “tragic” life of Wang and his autistic son, making the movie too sentimental and the outcome less hopeful. To some degree, the movie also fails to address how the autistic training center has or will contribute in helping children like Da Fu.
Regardless of its faults, Ocean Heaven is very touching in the way it vividly portrays the difficulties of raising an autistic child in China. The arrival of this film in Chinese mainstream media signals a big step forward for the cause of special needs children in China.