We know we’re in strange territory from the opening shot. Meryl Streep is performing tai chi exercises on a misty mountaintop behind the credits while churchy choral music swells on the soundtrack. By itself, there’s nothing at all objectionable about Ms. Streep practicing tai chi. The music, sung in Mandarin by a group called the Beijing Angelic Choir, is eerie yet somehow familiar. The image is of a peaceful woman moving harmoniously in a beautiful natural setting, enveloped by heavenly female voices. But we can’t shake the feeling that something is a few degrees off.
That’s the skill of filmmaker Chen Shi-Zheng, alerting us from the very first moment that something is indeed frightfully wrong in Dark Matter, his debut directorial effort. The film has the advantage of surprise in its story of a young Chinese scientist named Liu Xing (played by actor Liu Ye of Curse of the Golden Flower) who takes violent revenge for his treatment at an American graduate school. The screenplay is loosely based on the real-life case of one Lu Gang, who shot and killed five people at the University of Iowa in 1991. Lu’s rampage made headlines then, but today, after numerous similar incidents on campuses, it’s no doubt recalled as just one of many such tragedies. Sad, wasteful, and pointless, yet nothing unusual. These things happen.
Exactly how and why these things happen is what concerns Dark Matter. From a procedural point of view, the conflict at the heart of the drama begins when Liu Xing arrives at the unnamed American university (the film was shot on location in Salt Lake City and Orem, Utah, as well as in Toronto) to begin research in astrophysics. As part of the wave of foreign grad students coming to the US in the 1980s and ’90s, Liu, a brilliant and innovative thinker, is thrilled to meet his idol, physicist Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) and to be invited to join Reiser’s team — a group of Liu’s compatriots culled from China’s leading universities, all chasing the American Dream.
They work and live collectively, these stereotypical Asian nerds chain-smoking cigarettes, sending money to their parents back home, and dreaming of the great discoveries they’ll make while putting in long hours in the little room they’ve been given at the school. Never mind that everything about their situation screams exploitation and ghetto-ization, and that Prof. Reiser (“Call me Jake”), who takes credit for the students’ work and assigns them to his pet projects, begins to resemble the overseer on some sort of scientific plantation, using cheap imported labor to enrich the corporations funding the research center. Not only that, but when Liu, a bit more gregarious than his mates, tries to strike up a conversation with a pretty blond barista in the town, he strikes out — his English is laughable, for starters.
While all this is going on there’s another facet of the “host apparatus” at work. A rich donor to the university, Joanna Silver (Ms. Streep), volunteers her time helping the foreign students acclimate to the US by organizing orientations and taking them on social field trips to the local “Wild West town” and a church. Joanna lives in a fabulous hilltop home decorated with Buddhas and other Asian artifacts. It is established that she and her husband, Hal (actor Bill Irwin), do business in China and have visited there frequently, and that Joanna is pleased with herself for being able to throw a few polite Mandarin phrases into her conversation. She is instantly attracted to the quietly handsome Liu Xing, and their relationship becomes a slightly more complex emotional mirror of Liu’s increasing disenchantment with his role at the university and with his life.
Chen Shi-Zheng is best known for his imaginative staging of operas, notably The Peony Pavilion, a nineteen-hour production of Tang Xianzu’s Ming Dynasty epic of love and strife. The director, now based in New York, grew up in provincial Hunan during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s and used his talent as an opera singer to eventually make the move to America. He wrote Dark Matter to investigate the unhappy flip side of the immigrant experience, in particular the forces at work beneath the cheerful surface of cross-culturalism that he lampoons so devastatingly in the film.
While congenial Joanna Silver hosts dinner parties and manipulative Jake Reiser manages his cosmology sweatshop, we take a peek into Liu Xing’s head, where great expectations clash with the dull, parochial reality of business as usual. The film’s title refers to Liu’s breakthrough theory that an unseen “dark” material makes up 99 percent of the universe. That theory clashes with those of Reiser and his colleagues, and so despite his brilliance Liu finds himself cut out from the herd, denied his Ph.D, and professionally disgraced. “Not a team player.” Even as some of his fellow Chinese students adopt Western first names and join Christian churches to assimilate, the obstinate Liu absorbs his loss of face and takes flight into an interior world of flashbacks to his working-class parents and spiritual reveries of god and the universe, which to him are one and the same.
On the way to Liu’s Big Bang in his new white parka, filmmaker Chen dazzles us with visuals. The cowboy gunslinger imagery is a bit forced, but otherwise Liu’s leap from the violence of the universe to his personal crackup makes perfect narrative sense, operatic as it surely is. And the Beijing Angelic Choir’s renditions of “Old Black Joe” and “Beautiful Dreamer” help sustain the apprehensive mood.
Actor Liu Ye, a native of Beijing who also played in Chen Kaige’s The Promise and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, gives the melodramatic character of Liu Xing that extra touch of fierce pride. Quinn, of the shifty eyes and unctuous collegiality, nails the role of the villain. But it’s Streep’s Joanna we come to actually worry about. She patronizes Liu Xing in her own way, as well — too gushy, too anxious, too solicitous. Their final scene together, in which he shamefacedly tries to sell her cosmetics, is a perverse masterpiece of squirm-producing awkwardness. And yet we’re never convinced she’s anything other than a well-meaning do-gooder who’s a little too involved with herself to help the young man she recognizes as someone special. That’s the darkest of the many dilemmas in Dark Matter, a film to chew on.