Ocean Heaven opens with a disturbing scene that may upset viewers, particularly disabled ones; the father and sole caregiver of a young man with autism is attempting to drown him, and commit suicide at the same time. Wang Xingchang is despondent over his own terminal cancer diagnosis and worried for Dafu’s future, but when Dafu chooses life for them both he must figure out how his son will live on without him.

China does not seem to have a strong safety net for disabled adults without family support in general, nor do many people seem to have a nuanced understanding of autism in particular. Wang visits an institution he finds deplorable, his erstwhile love interest spurns him because she doesn’t want to be stuck taking care of Dafu, and finding suitable employment is a challenge. It would have been better if Dafu’s education had included life skills with an eye towards independent living all along, but such advances in special education have not yet reached all cultures and economic levels.

Not being privy to much of Dafu’s mental state, it’s tempting to think of him as a passive actor in all of this, but he does seem to sense the urgency of his situation (as indicated by a public meltdown). Dafu masters simple cooking, shopping, dressing, and taking public transportation, in what seems like slow progress but must actually be record time. But once activities of daily living are mastered, Wang’s ultimate concern is laid bare. Who will love my son? Who will keep him from loneliness and despair?

We will just have to trust in Dafu’s abilities.