DarkTitle: "Dark Matter" Director: Chen Shi-Zheng

There is little disagreement that the level of teaching, as well as the infrastructure, equipment, opportunities to advance and excel, in Asian grad schools are below those of the US in head-to-head comparisons. But our figures of qualified graduates in the sciences, no secret, have been discouragingly in decline for several decades, only partially stemmed by regular infusions of ambitious foreign blood, chiefly from Asian rim countries and the former Soviet Union.

… U.S. engineering and technology degrees in 1986 peaked at 97,122;
fell 16% to 81,610 in 2006, (Source: Washington-based National Center for Education Statistics)

.Data provided by the Chinese government showed 575,000 undergrad engineering degrees awarded in 2006. That stat is inflated because China classifies 'engineer' to include auto technicians and other jobs not deemed engineers in the U.S. (Source: Vivek Wadhwa, adjunct professor, Duke University, in Durham, NC).

Actual number of Chinese engineers comparable in quality to those in the U.S. in 2006 may have been closer to 60,000, Wadhwa said in a May 28 telephone interview. He noted that is less than half the number of U.S. graduates in the same year, citing figures that include computer scientists not in the National Science Foundation survey.

(Courtesy, Alex Forshaw, research data)

Despite the alarming data, we can discount the Cassandras to some extent, in that the culture-wide discouraging of innovation, and the lack of current world publications, is also a significant barrier to advancement. Brain-power alone, though wonderful, does not alone make up for the infrastructural and cultural deficits cited.

A good film to see that deals with the influx of gifted Asian–especially Chinese-students to top universities, "Dark Matter" watches one case-history: A special-import to MIT, in the astrophysics department. The department head, reaping the laurels of a theory that is received wisdom, is externally about support and nurturance. As the protagonist, Liu Xing, shows, what protege relationships involve is being a yes-guy, not rocking the boat, and finding ever-more-emphatic ways of lavishing agreeableness on the mentor. Or else. Liu's troubles with the American system of exclusionary perks and treatment, college politics and the importance of 'blending in,' can be found as assertive subtext throughout the film.

"Dark" stars brilliant Chinese student Liu Xing, played by Liu Ye (Postmen in the Mountains, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Purple Butterfly and Curse of the Golden Flower), unconsciously jockeying for top-rung among a thrush of foreign students in astrophysics and cosmology. His innocence as to the ways of academe result in his being chastised for original thought running counter to the published pet theories of his 'easy-going' but territorial mentor, Jacob Reiser, Aidan Quinn. (Note: "Jewish" professor. Depicted on the silver screen by a non-MOT. Typical.) Meryl Streep, a feather-headed wealthy Asian-student fetishist of sorts, is in the film for mere nanoseconds, trying to rectify what she sees as the institutional unfairness of favoritism, not merit, against the star Sino-import. Lui discovers an unprecedented innovation in the field, but is stonewalled at every turn by Professor Insecure. Liu is recognized as stellar (pun intended) in theory if not burdensome sociological comportment, but only Streep extends compassion to the blocked and chastised student. Not even Streep can hoist Liu over the fence of lethally competitive college politics. It's blindingly clear: No matter how innovative, Liu will never get his Ph.D.

A fascinating topic by itself, dark matter forms the building blocks of the universe, but far too little is made of the actual meat and potatoes of the science of cosmology. The film is both too general and too presumptuous, letting the observer flail about in ignorance. Unless he/she already knows the field, in which case, it is also unsatisfyingly vague and nonspecific.

If the subject matter is worthy of attention, an entire movie to itself, couldn't the writer/director, Chen Shi-Zheng, give us more to marvel at and gestate? Though based on a true incident in 1991 of a University of Iowa student losing his control to tragic effect, it seemed that a better film was lurking right outside of earshot. The subject matter remains important; academe remains a pungent venue for a suitably marinating speculum; and the topic of foreign students 'out-brillianting' home-growns remains a potent topic for discussion and study. This film isn't it.

The epic shortage of stateside scientists and engineers is not directly addressed, but hinted at throughout. As we are told, somewhat unreliably, this shortfall is being addressed in financial invigoration of science and engineering departments. But based on the current crops and results, we have a way to go before we regain lustrous supernova status.





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