China: Humiliation & the Olympics

Author Orville Schell writes in the New York Review of Books:

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 this spring and during the run-up to this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games.

By retelling the tragic story of a Chinese graduate student attempting to complete a Ph.D. at a prestigious American university, the film suggests, obliquely, a larger parable about China’s ambivalence toward the developed world, especially the United States.

July 25, 2008 4:03 PM
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