On a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor Christoph Goertz, his thesis adviser; Robert A. Smith, a member of his dissertation committee; and Shan Linhua, a fellow Chinese graduate student and his rival.
Next, Lu went to the office of the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dwight R. Nicholson, who was also on his dissertation committee, and fired three more fatal shots. Then, he walked over to Jessup Hall and demanded to see T. Anne Cleary, associate vice-president for academic affairs. When she emerged from her office, he killed her and then shot and maimed her twenty-three-year-old assistant. Finally, in an empty conference room, Lu raised the pistol to his head and killed himself.
Why a brilliant, hard-working young Chinese physicist, who had come to the US six years earlier filled with pride and hope, had come to such a bitter end is the subject of Dark Matter, a recently released feature film by Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng. It stars Liu Ye as the initially idealistic and ambitious, then humiliated and enraged, protagonist (named Liu Xing in the film); Aidan Quinn as Liu’s arrogant faculty adviser (playing Christoph Goertz); and Meryl Streep as a kind, if naive, patron of the university who befriends Chinese students.
Dark Matter may appear to be simply another film about a mass shooting spree at an American campus, albeit one with a Chinese twist. When Liu Xing arrives at the University of Iowa from Beijing, he optimistically proclaims himself
so lucky to come to America, Meiguo, the Beautiful Country. May we all find a dream here!… I’m going to solve the Dark Matter problem, win the Nobel Prize, and marry a blue-eyed American girl!
But he gradually becomes persuaded that his professors are conspiring to delay his degree and deny him his rightful recognition as a scholar. His growing paranoia is only heightened when his Ph.D. orals committee refuses to sign off on his thesis until he redoes some of his computations, making it impossible for him to win the top dissertation prize he feels he deserves. By the end of the film, his acute sense of humiliation has led to a psychotic state, and in a fit of murderous rage he kills the professors he once idealized.
But what gives Dark Matter wider significance is the filmmakers’ use of the Iowa incident to explore—indirectly—some important psychological dynamics between China and the West: China’s deeply felt sense of historic injury by foreign nations, and the ways its often thwarted efforts to gain acceptance among leading world powers have exacerbated such sentiments. In the past, feelings of injury have arisen from such events as the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation; and most recently after the Tibetan demonstrations …