In his feature-film debut, well-regarded Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng
makes a strong impression with Dark Matter, the story of a Chinese cosmology genius invited to America to join the team of a legendary cosmologist only to find that America isn't quite the land of opportunity that he had been brought up to believe. Based on the true story of a Chinese student who went ballistic at a major American university in the early '90s, Shi-Zheng's film, which originally premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, was held from release after the shootings at Virginia Tech last April. Now, only a few days before the anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, it would seem the pushback, though well-meaning, was useless.
Broken into five acts represented by symbols of the five elements, the film begins with Liu Xing (a very good Liu Ye
) walking into a Western university to meet and join legendary cosmology theorist Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn
). Funded by socialite Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep
), an avatar of America's fetishizing of Eastern tradition, Liu is invited to experience monuments of fake Americana (a mock ghost town) and droll bits of Chinese history. Her husband (Bill Irwin) sees it simply as a tax write-off, but Joanna has a deep want for things outside her closeted realm. Article continues below
As Liu Xing furthers his research, finding fault in Reiser's model, he finds that his dream of America left out some of America's more definable qualities: overzealous pride, jealousy, manipulation, and stubbornness. Stylized with flourishes of astrologically-infused effects and Van Dyke Park's evocative score, Xing slowly begins to drift into delirium as he finds Laurence (Lloyd Suh), a lesser student who sticks to the Reiser model, receiving the accolades he deserves. Despite waning support from Joanna and another professor (Rob Campbell), Xing's disillusionment leads, inevitably, to violent release.
Well-restrained and rarely melodramatic, Dark Matter could be seen as a high-end remake of Werner Herzog
's once-controversial Stroszek. Selling feminine ointments as a desperate last try to earn money for tuition and rent, Shi-Zheng's lost soul reveals himself as a failed experiment in cultural indoctrination whereas Laurence has completely assimilated and become a willing participant in the American shell game of academic science. Elsewhere, Xing's fledgling courtship with a coffee shop beauty acts as a fascinating mirror to Laurence's wife and child. Shi-Zheng, who had a small role in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, shows a natural ease with actors, especially in that he somehow makes Ye the eye of the storm, not Streep.