Dark Matter



Sitting in my office last Wednesday, on a cool sunny early fall afternoon, I looked down at my desk and I noticed my smartphone lighting up with an incoming call from an unfamiliar 973 number. I thought about letting it go to voicemail, since I was in the middle of some paperwork, but decided to go ahead and answer. It was a recorded message from the school’s automated emergency system. The message stated that someone had sent a shooting threat over social media, and our campus was a potential target. It also said that police had identified a suspect who sent the message and had decided the threat was not immanent and were investigating. Therefore, we were instructed to carry on with the day’s classes. (Mine were already over.) After I hung up, I thought back to earlier that morning, when I arrived on campus, seeing one of the campus police Dodge Chargers unusually parked on the quad between the library and the student center. Ohhh, so that’s why that was there…

I never felt so much a part of 21st century America as I did listening to that phone call, my heart quickening as the “fight or flight” instincts began to emerge. The only way I could feel like any more of a 21st century American is if the shooting were actually real.

This is the way we live now. Shootings and rumors of shootings. Clearly we have decided that mass murder is just collateral damage that we’re willing to put up with in exchange for Second Amendment fundamentalism. But not to worry. In some states there are politicians who want to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, so we’ll all feel much safer knowing that the student sitting in the back of your class who doesn’t know the Protestant Reformation from the Periodic Table might be strapped and ready to bust a cap in that ass if need be.

The shooting threat was personally ironic for me because the weekend before I had worked on some notes for this very blog post about the academic film Dark Matter, a film, based on real events, about a disgruntled Chinese graduate student in physics who goes on a killing spree. Dark Matter was one of those films I had not yet seen when I published my previous articles ranking academic films. I’ve watched it a couple of times since then, and about a month ago I noticed a DVD copy in the small local library in my new town, and I decided to give it another look.

It is not too much of a “spoiler” to say that this film was based on the true story of a Chinese graduate student in physics who killed five people at the University of Iowa in 1991. Dark Matter was completed in 2007, and the timing could not have been worse. Its release was delayed after Korean student Seung Hui-Cho shot and killed 28 people on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.

Comparing the two incidents is terribly unfair, but also terribly inevitable. Dark Matter does feature an Asian student who goes on a killing spree on a college campus. But the similarities really end there. Cho was a Korean-American undergraduate student who grew up in the U.S. and had a troubled history of mental illness. In this film, Liu Xing is a talented Chinese graduate student in mathematics who comes to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in physics, and it is implied that the difficulty in adjusting to a new culture coupled with the pressures of graduate school (and a particularly contrarian advisor) contributed to his anxiety.

(For the record, my comments here are about the fictionalized film, and NOT about the actual University of Iowa shooting.)

Beginning in the latter third of the 20th century, increasing numbers of Asian (and South Asian) students came to the U.S. to study in major research universities, particularly in the maths and sciences (though, of course, not exclusively in those fields). Dark Matter depicts a group of Chinese graduate students dealing with the process of assimilation into American university life, and these cultural adjustments add pressure and complications to an already stressful graduate school process.

The film begins with Liu Xing (played by Liu Ye) arriving at his new campus and settling into his new living quarters. His arrival at the campus is interspersed with images of his parents back in China, depicted as hard-working blue collar people. Mandarin voice-over narrations of the letters that he sends back to them are a continuing motif throughout the film.

Liu Xing soon meets his new graduate advisor Jacob Reiser (Aiden Quinn) and some fellow Chinese students. The relationship with his advisor starts out well, but later goes sour when Liu Xing decides to break with Reiser’s research program and takes his research off in a new direction. Liu feels that he has come up with a groundbreaking new idea about cosmology, but Reiser insists that he’s in over his head. Here the film addresses a pertinent issue in graduate education that some academics might recognize. Graduate students in the sciences and social sciences are often expected to work with their advisors on research projects and co-author scholarship together. For most students this can be a productive time of professional apprenticeship. But in some cases the relationship can become exploitative, with professors using their armies of graduate students to do their research for them and bolstering their own bylines.

The most high-profile name in the film is Meryl Streep who plays Joanna Silver, a wealthy white woman who is Liu Xing’s sponsor and host, and acts as a liaison to the Chinese students. Mainly this character is meant to represent a kind of well-meaning but  condescending Orientalism on the part of white westerners. Silver wears traditional Chinese clothing and is seen brushing up on her Mandarin. She takes the students to see a performance of “The Monkey King” (a play I was not familiar with until a presentation at the recent Archival Research Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center a couple of weeks ago.)  The contrast is striking; here are Chinese students adjusting to American culture, and here are white Americans desperately trying to connect with some authentic Asian culture through the students.

Assimilation is one of the predominant themes in the film. One of his fellow graduate students changes his first name to Lawrence, and insists on speaking only English, even when Liu Xing speaks to him in Mandarin. Lawrence marries a Chinese woman,and they have their infant daughter baptized into the Christian faith. And most importantly, Lawrence remains loyal to Dr. Reiser’s research agenda when Liu Xing decides to break ranks and publishes an article with his own ideas about dark matter and cosmology. The film deserves credit for confronting the simplistic model minority narratives of Asian-American students, narratives which can trivialize the many experiences of discrimination that Asian students face.

Liu Xing is humiliated when, at his dissertation defense, Reiser cruelly rejects his findings, even though another committee member thinks they have merit, and refuses to sign off unless Liu redoes some computations that he found insufficient.

My main problem with the film is the way that it ends. To end with the brutal, merciless shooting and leave the narrative hanging seems to have the effect of justifying Liu Xing’s martyrdom. A more challenging piece would have tried to deal with the implications of this act in the lives of people who survived it, implications that are only hinted at with the cutaways showing his family’s reactions as they receive the news in China.

One of the better things about the film is the irreverent humor between the Chinese students. Stereotypes abound of Asian students as humorless workaholics, but the film shows them doing what most students do in their downtime, mainly trying to have fun, get drunk and get laid.

There are definitely some interesting stories to be told about the experience of Asian students in American universities. Hopefully these other stories will not have to be as bleak and stunted as this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s