Dir. Chen Shi-Zheng. 2007. US. 88mins

Dark Matter follows a promising Chinese science student as he falls short of his expectations while studying in the United States and spirals into depression as he fears disappointing the parents who sacrificed everything to send their son to an American university. The talented young man strikes out at America with a violent act befitting the lurid popular culture stereotypes of the land that he sought to adopt. From there the drama, shot in Utah, limps toward its predictable ending.

Other than Utahns who want to see their state on the screen, Americans are likely to pass this one by, despite a cast with a major star like Meryl Streep. The Oscar winner's marquee appeal, the stardom of the male lead, Liu Ye, and the story's inspiration from a distraught student's 1991 killing spree in the US could ensure a large audience in China.

Liu Xing (Liu Ye), whose name means 'shooting star' in Chinese, arrives in America in the early 1990s with stars in his ambitious eyes. His mentor is an academic powerhouse at a Utah university filled with Chinese students.

But what had promised to be a liberating experience turns into a battle of wills with the self-centred professor (Quinn), who is challenged by his student's brilliance and determination. The young man's dissertation is rejected as he learns that, like China, America has its own bureaucratic and political walls, even in domains of free intellectual exploration.

The film also shifts to Liu Xing's family in China, highlighting the sacrifices on the home front and driving home the pain for a young man who is expected to return in triumph.

While the story by director Chen Shi-Zheng and scriptwriter Billy Shebar adds up, Shebar's script does not. Culture clashes are clumsily constructed, and characters seem like mannequins with billboarded dialogue designed to get the film to its bloody crescendo.

America is new territory for director Chen Shi-Zheng, whose real field is Chinese opera, which may explain why his film lacks a naturalistic feel, and why the shootout at the end looks like something you've seen many times before.

In the lead, Liu Ye (star of Zhang Yi-Mou's The Curse Of The Golden Flower) plays the ill-fated genius, a misunderstood student of cosmology, but misunderstood in part because this genius's English is monosyllabic and unexpressive. Liu's future as an actor in English will depend on whether his language skills will enable him to be more than a dark brooder.

Meryl Streep (Joanna Silver) occupies the other side of the cultural divide as a well-meaning patron of Chinese art on the idyllic campus, who encourages a young man to follow his heart without seeing the institutional consequences. She's the stereotype of the blithe uncomprehending Westerner, who decorates her mountain home with Chinese motifs but can't understand lonely Chinese people far from home.

Aidan Quinn, who plays Professor Jacob Reiser, is the villain in this melodrama, the vain university star who won't tolerate company or debate at the top.

Production designer Dina Goldman gets the atmosphere right: trouble in an immaculately-groomed ivory-tower paradise that turns soulless for a student who won't play by the rules. Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg gives the film the serviceable image of a TV movie.

Production companies/backers
American Sterling Productions
Saltmill LLC

International sales
Myriad Pictures

Mary Salter
Andrea Miller
Janet Yang

Executive producers
Kirk D'Amico
Linda Chiu

Billy Shebar
from a story by
Chen Shi-Zheng
Billy Shebar

Oliver Bokelberg

Michael Berenbaum
Pam Wise

Production design
Dina Goldman

Van Dyke Parks

Main cast
Liu Ye
Aidan Quinn
Meryl Streep