Ocean Heaven

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.

The Oxford Murders

Our first glimpse of the myriad allusions to disability in The Oxford Murders is that of an elderly lady, Mrs. Eagleton, who rents out a room to Martin, a promising young mathematics student who just arrived at Oxford. It is not the intent of Disability Movies to unnecessarily conflate advanced age with disability; we are not shown explicitly what Mrs. Eagleton needed help with or why she had no home health aide–she seems perfectly able to walk to the door, feed herself and play board games–though she is described as a cancer survivor. Her daughter Beth is introduced as her sole caregiver, and vocalizes her resentment of that role to Martin.

Martin attempts to meet an old friend of Mrs. Eagleton, prominent mathematician Arthur Seldom. Seldom gives him the brush-off until they happen to visit Mrs. Eagleton’s home at the same time to find her dead, with a broken nose. The police briefly question her daughter, but Martin–who has been attracted to her–assures them she wouldn’t have done it. Instead, he turns their attention to a strange sequence of symbols they notice. The two mathematicians and the police concur that there’s something fishy about this, and speculate wildly about the meaning of the symbols.

(Permit me a brief digression while I inform you of the fleeting shot of a black cab stopping at a curb across the street from our protagonists during one such conversation about the interpretation of the symbols, and once the cab pulls away it becomes apparent that a wheelchair user and companion have disembarked. Huzzah for the wheelchair accessible London cab fleet!)

Here the movie takes a turn for the weird. Seldom and Martin visit an old friend of Seldom’s in the hospital, deranged triple-amputee Kalman. An able-bodied actor was used, necessitating an uncomfortable false bed for the actor and digital trickery to erase the superfluous limbs:

Kalman with a human skull, presumably before going bonkers.

Kalman is a great part. He exists only in flashbacks, and (since flashbacks are usually mute) there is no scripted dialogue. He starts off a young chap in the 1970s, with sideburns, wide lapels and garish ties: the makeup people give me fresh, prosthetic cheeks, my own being too old and sunken. This is just the beginning. Kalman is an Oxford don, driven mad by his inability to solve a complex mathematical quandary. His laboratory becomes a lair; he showers in the kitchen; he throws computer monitors through the window (yay!). In addition to going mad, Kalman develops horrible cancers: both his legs fall off. He gets to buzz around in an electric wheelchair for a while, carrying a skull. Then one of his arms falls off, and he’s last seen lying naked on a hospital gurney, writing one word repeatedly with his remaining hand.


Kalman, a triple amputee due to cancer and mentally ill due to... mathematics!

Kalman is portrayed in a dehumanizing manner; stark naked on his hospital bed, rear end instantly noticable. His remaining arm is encased in what looks almost like an Ilizarov or Taylor Spatial Frame used for bone lengthening, with which he scribbles on paper madly. His arm assemblage is suspended by wires to enable him to write with less fatigue, but succeeds in giving him a tragic, puppetlike appearance. Nurses come and go from the room, leaving the door open while they talk to others in the corridor with nary a thought for his privacy. His visitors don’t even bother to talk to him, not even to see if he’s aware of their presence or will talk about the symbols.

And do I really need to explain the idiocy of suggesting mathematics can be a vector for mental illness? Any student will say their calculus class is driving them crazy, but that’s only a figure of speech.

The mentally ill and intellectually disabled mill about the hospital hallways.

The trip to the hospital to gawk at Kalman nevertheless proves fruitful, as the two amateur investigators meet a haggard-looking older man in the hospital corridor eager to discuss symbols with them. (The audience is meant to consider this man mentally ill or possibly intellectually disabled, as signified by his raving and bad teeth.)

A chance encounter leaves Martin slightly terrified and suspicious

Also, one nurse in particular catches Martin’s eye, and they embark on a relationship even though he had seemed to be interested in Beth. They share at weird sex scene where they make a mess with spaghetti.

Martin comes to the conclusion that the symbols mean a mass murder is imminent, and feeds his ideas to the police. A check of newspaper headlines reveals a field trip for students with intellectual disabilities, and police attempt to intercept their school bus but are thwarted when the bus swerves into a tree and explodes in a giant fireball. Much is made in the media of the catastrophe, and the students are consistently referred to as “children” and “innocents” (though they look to be young adults).

When the driver of the bus is found to be the same man from the hospital corridor, his motives are revealed; he didn’t orchestrate the accident out of some twisted desire to kill, but to obtain a kidney for his daughter who needed a transplant. (Ethical issues about organ transplantation from murder victims, and from the intellectually disabled who presumably have not given informed consent, are not discussed.)

Martin’s theory regarding the symbols collapses, and he realizes that he should have applied Occam’s Razor much earlier in the investigation. He confronts Beth about Mrs. Eagleton’s death, and she reveals that she murdered her mother in order to clear the way for a relationship with him.


Set in the 1800s, long before such things as feeding tubes, living wills, or functional MRI’s had been conceived of, Firelight tells the story of Charles, an English gentleman farmer who contracts with Elisabeth, an impoverished Swiss lady to bear him a child in secret. Elisabeth regrets her decision to give up the baby, and after a seven year-long search, convinces Charles’ sister-in-law to hire her as governess to Louisa, the defiant and illiterate daughter their union has produced. It is only then that the reason Charles wanted a child is revealed; he’s married to a woman, Amy, whose head injuries from a riding accident have left her in a coma since shortly after their wedding.

Amy is not portrayed being dressed, bathed, fed, or having her muscles stretched by servants or nurses, and yet this must happen off-screen, because she is neat, presumably clean, has a good appearance, and doesn’t have any apparent contractures or pressure sores, as might be expected after a decade comatose. She also seems to be of normal weight, in spite of the fact that feeding tubes and liquid nutrients have yet to be invented. Maids care for her, or at least sit with her as she lies in bed staring up at the ceiling, round the clock in the off-limits attic.

This isn’t Jane Eyre, though, and Elisabeth has no compunction against entering into a relationship with Charles, though he does initially experience pangs of guilt over the damage to his wife’s reputation. After one encounter, Charles reveals to Elisabeth in the light of the fire that he had sometimes thought of “letting her go”, but did not want to do so without a sure sign from his wife that she wanted to die.

Eventually the bills mount and the creditors close in (presumably from the cost of Amy’s care, as Charles seems to be the fiscally responsible one in the family). Elisabeth successfully bonds with Louisa, and it becomes apparent to Charles that Amy stands in the way of the happy nuclear family they desire.

Presumably divorce laws were tougher in those days, and few options for long-term care existed. On one particularly cold night, Charles makes the decision to euthanize his wife. He does ask Amy once more for a sign, but when none is forthcoming he dismisses the maid, opens the window, removes her blankets, and extinguishes her fireplace. The doctor is called when the next shift discovers her, and he pronounces her dead while everyone present looks askance at Charles.

Charles’ libertine father approves, and Amy’s sister presumes her death means that Charles is now free to marry her. Instead Charles and Elisabeth further defy social convention to marry and make their relationship known.