Political Film Society - Newsletter #306 - May 1, 2008

May 1, 2008


A Syrian criticizes the government, is imprisoned for many years, and dies not longer after his release from prison. His mother Mouna Khalil (played by Hiam Abbass) and son Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman) flee to Michigan, seeking diplomatic asylum. Although her application is accepted, she throws away a letter denying his petition before he can see the deportation order. Years go by. Tarek moves to New York, befriends Zainab (played by Danai Gurira), a Senegalese illegal alien, and they find a Greenwich Village apartment through unusual connections. The apartment, however, happens to be owned by Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins), an economics professor who lost focus when his pianist spouse died some years earlier. One day, his department chair requires him to present a paper at a conference at NYU because the author is about to give birth. When he arrives at his apartment, he discovers Tarek and Zainab living there. Lonely, he insists that they should stay, and he finds joy as Tarek teaches him how to use his drums. One day, Tarek is apprehended in the subway as a suspicious Arab and confined in an immigration facility. After visiting Tarek, Vale hires an attorney, and Zainab moves out to be with friends. Not having heard from her son, Mouna arrives in New York, knocks on the apartment door, learns the bad news, and now Professor Vale has a new friend, if only to console, but he gets a leave of absence to pursue his new cause, only to experience the frustration of powerlessness. Directed by Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor demonstrates that the American government has little compassion after 9/11. The noir ending, however, is writ large in reality. Missing are subtitles at the end to convey the magnitude of the situation, particularly the fact that international law forbids deporting persons to countries that practice torture. The only clue to a larger lesson is the statement by Tarek that the detention facility is inhumane and that none being deported are security threats, as the real terrorists would have major financial backing. MH

Dark MatterPresumably based on a true story, Dark Matter focuses on Liu Xing (played by Chinese actor Ye Liu), a brilliant physics graduate student at an American university near the Rockies who is hired upon arrival from Beijing as a research assistant by a Professor Jacob Reiser (played by Aidan Quinn), the author of a supposedly famous theory about the big bang. Of the many Chinese graduate students in Reiser’s project, he regards Xing as the most brilliant, but he is unprepared for how brilliant. The film proceeds at four levels. One focus is on Xing’s parents in China, who work hard in factories, obviously have saved a lot of money to put him through college, now expect him to succeed in America, and Xing in turn does not want to disappoint them. A second focus is on Joanna Silver (played by Meryl Streep), whose husband has become rich by importing goods from China, possibly those produced by Xing’s parents. With an abiding love of Chinese culture, she provides off-campus support for students from China through excursions and receptions. The third level is the effort by Xing to find an American girlfriend, Claire (played by Jodi Russell), but Xing evidently is not experienced enough to realize that she is only mildly interested in his attention. The fourth level is the interaction between Xing, his fellow Chinese students, and the opportunities provided at the university. The down-to-earth Chinese enjoy free entertainment and food but quickly realize that their path to success requires them to work on a problem preapproved by Professor Reiser. Xing, however, wants to do a thesis beyond Reiser’s theory. He believes that space is not empty and occasionally populated by galaxies and stars; instead, he believes that space is otherwise filled with dark matter, and he wants to prove his theory with mathematics. When he finishes, he appears before his doctoral committee to defend his dissertation, but he is rebuffed by Reiser, who requires that he must recalculate everything. Mortified, Xing gets a gun, shoots Reiser and four others before killing himself. But the film ends without titles that might enable filmviewers to better understand that Xing’s situation may not only be based on a true story (the shooting was at the University of Iowa in 1991, when a Chinese student did not receive a top award for his completed dissertation) but also typifies the clash of cultures between brilliant students expecting to be rewarded for thinking outside the box and an academic world in which professional egos limit that aspiration. What is particularly unfortunate is that students similar to Xing often do not know how the academic world operates, and even academics are unaware of the human and cultural elements impacted by their decisions. Xing had nowhere to go for support on campus, and Reiser’s academic colleagues were similarly unskilled in knowing what to do in order to avoid tragedy. Virginia Tech in 2007 has made the same point. Alas, cultural awareness training that is required in many businesses and government agencies is lacking at universities. Director Shi-Zheng Chen has unfortunately missed an opportunity to promote that awareness by not using clarificatory voiceovers and failing to place titles at the end about the 1991 situation and the larger context. MH.