Tragedy echoes in new film

Special to The Times

One of the most jolting moments at this year’s Sundance Film Festival came in the closing sequence of a movie called “Dark Matter”: A disaffected Asian college student abruptly snaps and goes on a bloody rampage, killing professors, classmates and, finally, himself. The audience was plainly shocked, and some critics attacked the finale as a jarring gimmick that, narratively, came out of nowhere.

“Dark Matter” now, of course, would take on a different context to anyone who sees it following the Virginia Tech shootings on Monday that left 33 people dead, among them Seung-hui Cho, the gunman who took his own life and shares much in common with the character at the center of “Dark Matter.”

The film, starring Aidan Quinn and Meryl Streep, was actually inspired by another grisly campus crime: The 1991 University of Iowa incident in which Chinese foreign exchange student Gang Lu reacted violently after being passed over for an academic prize and killed five people and left a sixth paralyzed before killing himself.

At the close of Sundance, film distributors seemed unsure what to do with such a bleak film, and it was uncertain whether it would be released theatrically or go straight to DVD. Now the film is getting interest again as a theatrical release.


“We are conducting ongoing discussions with potential distributors,” producer Janet Yang said via e-mail on Thursday. “We have not set a release date but expect to soon.”

“Dark Matter” is the work of first-time screenwriter Billy Shebar and Chinese theater and opera director Shi-Zheng Chen, himself a onetime foreign exchange student at New York University. The pair began collaborating on the project in 1997 before the Columbine High School shootings shocked America, and the disturbing plot contributed to its slow march toward completion. Chen was in Dalian, the port city in northeast China, for rehearsals of his new opera when he heard about the Virginia Tech killings.

“I was just totally horrified,” he said. “Like a nightmare, you know? I thought, we just finished making this film about this horrible instance. I had tried to make a film to send a message to say we have to find a way to prevent further tragedies from happening.”

At Sundance, the film won the annual award (and $20,000 cash prize) that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation gives to the festival’s outstanding feature on science and technology. Doron Weber, program director for the Sloan Foundation, said that the award recognized a film that captured haunting truths about humanity amid the setting of scientific academia.


“I would say that there’s a resonance in that one of the things that ‘Dark Matter’ is about is how much we don’t know and how dark most of the universe literally is,” Weber said. “And I would say that human psychology and human motive is, if not equally, also mysterious to us in that we don’t really know as much as maybe we think we do about why people do what they do.”

The plot of “Dark Matter” follows student Xing Liu (played by Ye Liu), whose proposed thesis delves into the cosmological mysteries of dark matter. Liu’s ideas are so innovative that his mentor, Jacob Reiser (Quinn), becomes intimidated and begins to sabotage the younger man’s career. The student already feels culturally alienated too, despite the help of an altruistic campus advisor (Streep), and he also becomes financially strapped. Then, feeling robbed of his purpose in life, Liu snaps and picks up a gun.

The real-life shooter at Virginia Tech, by all accounts, had been a troubled and menacing figure for several years, but there are still enough similarities to the film to have created a surreal situation in recent days, said screenwriter Shebar. “The tragedy of this story and of our film lies in all the missed opportunities to connect -- all the little ways in which we fail, despite our best intentions, to see how alienated and dangerous someone in our community has become,” Shebar said in an e-mail interview Thursday. “Like Liu, the killer in ‘Dark Matter,’ Cho’s mind had collapsed back on itself, to the point where he saw no other option to killing. But sadly, no one in the community could see that he had crossed this line.”

It’s now reflexive for the news media and punditry circuit to look for connections between pop culture and real-life violence -- the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, has led to speculation that the gunman may have adopted some poses from an especially violent South Korean revenge movie called “Oldboy,” which won the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. There’s also been chatter that Cho may have used video games to “practice” his rampage, but so far no direct connections have been made.


Shebar said he hoped that if his film did get connected in the public mind with the grim events in Blacksburg, Va., that it would lead to deeper thoughts than blame games. Shebar explained that another Sloan juror described the film during a panel as “Oedipus in the form of a Chinese graduate student.” Shebar appreciated the comparison.

“We wanted the film to have that same combination of shock and inevitability that you feel in classical tragedy,” Shebar says. “People experience mass killings like the one in Virginia as coming totally out of the blue, and then within a day or so, we see all the writing on the wall that we missed earlier, or were powerless to act on.”