EmptyPARK CITY -- Venturing into delicate emotional territory, opera and theater director-turned-filmmaker Chen Shi-Zheng crafts an unsettling first feature that examines issues of personal ambition, academic ethics and the obstacles to cultural assimilation in the U.S.
The film's inspired-by-true-events pedigree will interest discerning viewers, though its dark tone might prove a challenge for theatrical distribution. With careful handling by a specialty outfit, "Dark Matter" could reap modest rewards from art house markets. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance, which honors an outstanding feature focusing on science or technology.
Referencing an actual incident at an American university more than a decade ago, the filmmakers reimagine the events as a story about Chinese cosmology student Liu Xing (Liu Ye). Leaving university in Beijing, Liu immigrates to the U.S. in 1991 to study astrophysics at fictional Valley State University with renowned researcher and academic Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). With great admiration for his mentor, Liu quickly becomes Reiser's favored student, though fitting into American society and the university hierarchy isn't quite as easy.
Social support for immigrants is available from the local church, where wealthy Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a devotee of Chinese culture and philanthropist of the university's astrophysics department, frequently assists newly arrived students. She quickly develops an admiration for Liu's keen intellect, particularly after he explains the concept of dark matter to her, a theory positing that 99% of the universe is composed of invisible material.
Reiser and his graduate students are developing a model of the universe that doesn't include dark matter theory, so when Liu presents his thesis topic on the subject to Reiser and the dissertation committee, he meets with resistance rather than the support he expected. Liu suspects that Reiser is withholding the committee's approval because his ideas contradict his professor's. Indeed, Reiser resorts to ethically questionable tactics to thwart Liu's candidacy.
Although Joanna encourages Liu to pursue his own cosmological model, even her intervention can't persuade Reiser to give Liu a chance to prove himself. Meanwhile, a newly arrived Chinese student (Lloyd Suh) -- Liu's nemesis from Beijing University -- becomes Reiser's new protege.
The tension engendered by academic politics and the demands of advanced astrophysics push Liu toward a mental and emotional crisis as he becomes increasingly delusional and dangerous, finally erupting in a shocking act of violence.
Chen, himself a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., explores the difficulties that Chinese students face when relocating to the U.S. through the lens of the academic community, which often is the gateway for many new arrivals. Through Liu's frequent letters to his parents detailing his academic progress, voiced over scenes of his working-class family in China, Chen demonstrates the importance of the American dream to many newcomers.
The director's theatrical background is apparent in Liu's occasional fantasy sequences about becoming a famous researcher and the final climactic scene. However, neither the main narrative nor these stylistic devices goes deep enough to reveal his motivations. Liu Ye's acting abilities alone are insufficient for the task.
In an evocatively tamped-down performance, Streep skillfully evokes Joanna's drive to assist new immigrants, but her fascination with Chinese culture and Liu in particular comes across as rather obscure. Quinn is strong as the alternately affable and acidic Reiser.
Like the dark matter that forms the film's essential metaphor, Liu's desperate downward spiral from model student to disgraced outsider remains essentially mysterious.
American Sterling Prods. in association with Saltmill Llc.
Screenwriter: Billy Shebar
Producers: Janet Yang, Mary Salter, Andrea Miller
Executive producers: Kirk D'Amico, Linda Chiu
Director of photography: Oliver Bokelberg
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Music: Van Dyke Parks
Costume designer: Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Editors: Pam Wise, Michael Berenbaum
Joanna Silver: Meryl Streep
Jacob Reiser: Aidan Quinn
Liu Xing: Liu Ye
Laurence Feng: Lloyd Suh
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating