24 January 2008

Hollywood Reporter says that the film Dark Matter 《暗物质》 has gotten a North American distribution deal and will hit theaters this April:

Based on a true story, the film follows a Chinese science student (Liu Ye) invited by a professor (Quinn) to travel to the U.S. to study for his Ph.D., but the pressures of his new environment cause him to slowly unravel. [Meryl] Streep plays his mentor.

By “unravel” they mean he becomes violent and shoots people. The film was scheduled for release last year, but it got delayed and lost distribution due to the Virginia Tech shootings (where the shooter was Korean, but apparently that was too close for comfort). Dark Matter’s director, Shi-Zheng Chen, is an unknown, but lead actor Liu Ye ought to be familiar to Chinese audiences from his roles in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and more recently The Curse of the Golden Flower.

When the Virginia Tech shootings occurred, it was first reported, erroneously, that the shooter was Chinese. Blogger Josie Liu wrote about Chinese netizens reactions, including that many were “ashamed”. It’ll be interesting to see how the film portrays the lead characters resort to violence in the face of pressures and discrimination, and even more interesting to see how Chinese audiences interpret it. The film premiered at Sundance last year, and Variety had a review.

The 1991 case of a Chinese student who went off the deep end at an American university is dramatized to intriguingly esoteric but ultimately unsatisfying effect in “Dark Matter.” Critiquing both the relentless Eastern drive for success and the insular, self-serving nature of Western academia, this debut feature from opera and theater helmer Chen Shi-Zheng never fully succeeds in burrowing under its protagonist’s skin, despite conspicuous effort. While Meryl Streep in a substantive role reps a bizarre selling point, pic’s superficial aftertaste will limit it strictly to fest exposure and very limited arthouse play.

Structured in five acts, each labeled with a different Chinese character representing one of the five elements, the story begins with student Liu Xing (Liu Ye) arriving at a Western university, where he’s invited by cosmology professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) to join his research team. Brilliant, hard-working, obsequious to a fault, Liu Xing so impresses Reiser that the professor initially takes him under his wing.

Liu Xing’s other significant mentor is Joanna Silver (Streep), a kindly patron of the university with a special interest in Chinese culture. It’s Joanna who first hears Liu Xing’s scientific theory about dark matter, which shapes most of the universe – an impenetrable concept that has driven astrophysicists crazy for years, and which is explicated here in barely comprehensible terms for a layperson. When Liu Xing decides to write his dissertation on dark matter, Reiser shoots down his proposal, not least because it threatens his own widely accepted model.

Suddenly facing academic ruin, Liu Xing finds his already strained psyche beginning to unravel; the pic attempts to hint at this early on by inserting brief, disturbing shots of the student looking ominously determined. But no amount of foreshadowing can conceal the tale’s essential banality and lack of psychological depth – a shame, since Liu Ye is rather good at suggesting the moral blankness behind his character’s ingratiating manner.

There’s a smart movie to be made about the often unhealthy pressure Asians face to work hard and succeed, but even as a tale of one student’s destructive choices, Billy Shebar’s script fails to lay the necessary groundwork for Liu Xing’s sudden shift into violence. The result is a middling academic drama that passes pleasantly enough for roughly an hour before detouring into a tacked-on tragic climax.

Quinn delivers the pic’s best performance, imbuing his outwardly friendly, laid-back professor (“Call me Jake”) with a hint of condescension that prickles from the first frame. As a woman who encourages Liu Xing, then watches helplessly as he slides toward disaster, Streep brings some warmth and humanity to the role even as one wonders what attracted her to this material.

Aside from its use of occasional exploding light effects that resemble supernovas – an attempt to forge a thematic connection between Liu Xing’s astronomical theories and personal neuroses – the pic has no real visual style to speak of. Other tech credits are adequate.

“An Wuzhi” (in Chinese) has a Sina page as well.

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