It is unfortunate that the last act of this debut film from Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng is so jarringly incongruous to its fairly successful first two-thirds. The film starts out as a basic fish-out-of-water story, as a group of Chinese graduate students attempt to adjust to the American lifestyle. Liu Xing (Liu Ye) is an uncommonly brilliant student of cosmology, and his glibly condescending mentor, Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn), realizes this from day one. Only when Xing develops a theory that clashes with one of Reiser’s does the relationship sour, and thus begins Xing’s breakneck downward spiral. (Opposite Reiser, Meryl Streep is surgically inserted into the plot as Joanna Silver, a nurturing patron of the arts with an affinity for Chinese culture.)
Though it is advertised as being “based on a true story,” until its seemingly tacked-on ending, the film doesn’t bother to follow the actual events in the life of Gang Lu, the Chinese physics student who went on a shooting rampage at the University of Iowa in 1991. The film’s conceit is that it makes us love Xing only to tear him down for the sake of cheap controversy.