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September 2011

Dark Matter on DVD

cast: Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, and Bill Irwin

director: Chen Shi-zheng

85 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Ian Sales




Dark Matter poster
Dark Matter

There is a moment in Dark Matter when a slightly inebriated Liu Xing (Ye Liu) explains dark matter to local do-gooder and pillar of the community Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep). The universe, he tells her, is like a mountain range with snow-capped peaks, and those peaks are what we can see - the stars and nebulae and planets. The rest of the mountains are 'dark matter'. It's clearly a conceit which was much on the screenwriter's mind when he wrote the script for the film. Dark Matter is very much a film wherein much is hidden from the viewer, and can only be inferred from the actions of the characters.

Liu has been brought to the US from China to earn a doctorate and work as a research assistant for Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). The professor, a cosmologist, has several Chinese students working in his department. They do all the work, and he writes it up as learned papers and gets the credit. It is a cosmology sweatshop. Reiser's career is built upon his model of the origin of the universe, and every piece of work he produces is dependent upon that model. Now, Liu has found a flaw in Reiser's model and he thinks that dark matter is the key to fixing it. Reiser, however, is not interested. He doesn't believe in dark matter, and he doesn't want Liu working on it.

Outside the university, Liu is introduced to life in the US by Joanna, a Sinophile. He also meets a young woman in a local coffee shop and hopes to ask her out. On telling her that he is a cosmologist, she mistakes him for a cosmetologist. Although he doesn't correct her, he continues to visit her, although she later confesses to her mistake and then admits to already being in a relationship.

Liu continues to work on dark matter, despite the disapproval of Reiser. He even has a paper on the subject published in a journal. Reiser drops Liu as his protegé and turns to Laurence Feng (Lloyd Suh), a rival of Liu's back in Beijing, now at the same American university. Laurence has made more of an effort to Americanise, and is plainly out to succeed: he does exactly what he is told by Reiser. His doctoral thesis, for example, fully supports Reiser's model...

..Unlike Liu's, which is concerned with dark matter. The review board reject his thesis proposal, but he goes ahead with it. When Reiser refuses to accept the finished thesis, Liu is not awarded his PhD. Liu won't return to China, where his mother and father work in factories and live in poverty, and ends up having to sell beauty products door to door. It is an ignominious end to what could have been a Nobel prize-winning career in cosmology, and it is all the result of Reiser's shameful behaviour. Liu, left with nowhere to turn, chooses to respond with a gun...

The story of Dark Matter is based on a true story. In 1991, a Chinese student, Gang Lu, killed four faculty members at the University of Iowa because he was not awarded a dissertation prize or a temporary postdoctoral fellowship after graduation. Both went to a rival Chinese student. The movie's release was also delayed a year because its plot resembled the events of the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. Dark Matter went on to win the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the "the best film dealing with science or technology" at the Sundance film festival that year.

It's not hard to see why Dark Matter did so well at Sundance. Perhaps it's not unexpected to find high calibre acting talent in a film which boasts Streep on the bill, but Ye Liu is the star of Dark Matter and he's very much equal to the part. The rest of the cast are every bit as skilled. But this is also a film that looks good, with some impressive camerawork and a visual aesthetic that signals from the very start both that its lead is a stranger in a strange land and that his story will not end well.

Shamefully, the studio has chosen to release the DVD with cover art depicting only the faces of Streep and Quinn. Ye Liu is, clearly, the star of the film, but he is not white. We should be beyond such racist marketing by now.



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