x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dark Matter

The world of theoretical physics is not the first place you would expect to find great drama. But Shi-Zheng Chen has taken an intelligent script and peopled it with effective actors.

The weight of the world: Meryl Streep and Liu Ye channel the events of a 1991 US high school shooting in <i>Dark Matter</i>.
The weight of the world: Meryl Streep and Liu Ye channel the events of a 1991 US high school shooting in Dark Matter.

Dark Matter is based on - or, as the writers tell us, is a reaction to - an incident at Iowa State University in the United States in 1991. A Chinese graduate student who had been awarded a PhD in theoretical physics felt slighted when he did not win a certain award for his dissertation. Soon after, he joined the ever-lengthening list of campus shooters.

Dark Matter, of course, carries two meanings. One refers to the unseen matter that makes up 98 per cent of the universe and the other describes that part of the human mind that operates without reason, enabling some of us to commit unimaginably horrible acts. In the end, the film is a unique and effective treatment of both. It garnered an Alfred P Sloan Foundation award for its treatment of celestial dark matter, making an extremely complex issue accessible. It also opens a window into the mind of a foreign student whose psychological foibles are transformed into alienation by a culture not his own.

Liu Xing (Liu Ye) arrives in the US fascinated by the concept of dark matter, which can only be described by its effect on other bodies - a fascinating metaphor as the story plays out. He is granted admission to an elite group of students attempting to construct a model of the universe based on the Reiser Model, a theory developed by Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). Reiser is Liu's hero and he writes to his parents of the great honour he feels now that he is able to study under the man whose works he read with such admiration in China.

Liu shares a house with three other Chinese students and, like college students anywhere, they spend much of their spare time taking about girls and discussing whether they will seek lucrative jobs in private companies or remain in academia when they finish their doctoral work. The experience of the Chinese students in America rings particularly true, partly because much of the dialogue is in Chinese but also because the director, Shi-Zheng Chen, is a New York-based director of opera and stage plays and obviously knows the assimilation process well. Liu's discombobulation is clear when Reiser insists, "Call me Jake" and "You can always challenge me", invitations unfamiliar in China's more hierarchical educational world. At one point, a character says that "in China, astrology is a science and plumbing is a luxury". But more incisive are the frequent remarks in Chinese regarding the abundance of food at campus functions, not to mention the asides that express befuddlement or condescension at the cultural gulf the students regularly encounter.

Liu soon becomes the star student. Reiser describes him as brilliant to Joanna Silver, played by Meryl Streep. Silver is the idle wife of a rich businessman who has given the cosmology department a computer lab, and she becomes the unofficial orientation guide for newly arrived Chinese students. Liu falls out of favour with Reiser when he presents a daring idea that he thinks will prove the existence of dark matter. It will, however, require modifications to the Reiser Model, a possibility the professor is not about to allow from one of his doctoral candidates. Liu's place in Reiser's hierarchy is soon replaced by Laurence (Lloyd Suh), a completely assimilated Chinese student who goes so far as to team with his Chinese-American wife to sing western opera. He may be brilliant, but he's the kind of guy you'd like to punch.

When Liu goes behind Reiser's back to publish a paper on dark matter, his fate is sealed. His doctoral dissertation is not approved and soon after, a tea room clerk that he has somewhat inexplicably been wooing - she initially mistakes "cosmology" for "cosmetology" - says that she sees no future in their relationship. The time bomb is ticking. The world of theoretical physics is not the first place one would expect to find great cinematic drama. Chen, however, has taken an intelligent script, peopled it with effective actors and employed a formalism that brings it all to credible life.

The DVD box describes Dark Matter as a thriller, but don't let that fool you. It is the profoundest of tragedies.