Film-Forward Review: DARK MATTER

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Meryl Streep & Liu Ye
Photo: Matthew Margolin/First Independent Pictures

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Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng
Written by Billy Shebar, story by Chen Shi-Zheng & Shebar
Produced by Mary Salter, Andrea Miller & Janet Yang
Director of Photography, Oliver Bokelberg
Edited by Pam Wise & Michael Berenbaum
Music by Van Dyke Parks
Released by First Independent Pictures
English & Mandarin with English subtitles
USA. 88 min. Rated R
With: Liu Ye, Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Bill Irwin & Lloyd Suh

Opera director Chen Shi-Zheng asked journalist/documentarian Billy Shebar to develop a script inspired by a 1991 campus shooting involving a Chinese student, who Chen related to as an expatriate graduate student in the United States at the same time. His debut feature poignantly and sympathetically gets inside the confused head of an Asian immigrant not usually seen in film – one of the best and the brightest who come to the U.S. for advanced education. (Other campus shootings delayed distribution of this 2007 film.)

The competitive and hierarchical world of cosmological physics is a tough field of intellectual combat for anyone at an American university, especially one ruled over by Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn, whose charmingly gregarious demeanor is here just a cover for a ruthless despot). Reiser welcomes top-scoring graduate student Liu Xing (Liu Ye, star of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) into his research group, already full of easily cowed Asian graduate students who kowtow to Reiser. All are grateful for access to top technology, but are easily flummoxed by American culture and academic politics.

Liu’s letters home start off factually realistic, but as he gets more and more frustrated at his life in the States and afraid of losing face, he writes of a fantasy life, which includes almost winning the Nobel Prize. Equally naïve is the maternal Lady Bountiful, Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), who touchingly encourages him. The major donor to Reiser’s department, she also uses the wealth of her husband to indulge in her dilettante’s passion for Chinese culture (instead of a new accent, Streep tries out Mandarin). A repeated image from the opening on is Joanna practicing tai chi by her luxurious swimming pool with its stunning view of the Rocky Mountains. The Utah landscape and the cowboy images around Salt Lake City provide spectacular symbolism of the American West and the last frontier, reinforced by the incongruity on the soundtrack of Americana songs interpreted by the Beijing Angelic Choir.

However, it is a bit extreme that Liu as a graduate student would soar as high as getting a landmark paper published and then get railroaded into complete destitution. But amusingly and touchingly realistic are the challenges and camaraderie among the isolated Chinese graduate students, in and out of school. Some aim to return to China as shining stars, but others want to assimilate into corporate jobs or academic positions in the U.S., such as one colleague who determinedly speaks English and changes his name to Laurence. The concluding violence is dream-like, with the accentuated impact due more to how we have come to understand this shooter and the victims than to the bloodshed. Nora Lee Mandel
April 11, 2008



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