REEL ASIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL to Sunday (November 18). Various venues. For complete schedule, see Indie & Rep Film, this page. 416-703-9333, www.reelasian.com. Rating: NNNNN
It's true, people. Meryl Streep is in a film at this year's Reel Asian International Film Festival. And it's not just an opportunity for her to show off yet another accent - although, to be fair, her Mandarin sounds pretty decent.
La Streep has a small but touching role in one of the fest's strongest features, Dark Matter (Saturday, November 17, 8 pm, Innis Town Hall, rating: NNNN ), which won an award earlier this year at Sundance. She plays Joanna, a wealthy university patron who's obsessed with Chinese culture and befriends a handful of immigrant Chinese students pursuing their PhDs and conducting scientific research.
One of them is Liu Xing ( Liu Ye ), initially championed by his professor, Jacob Reiser ( Aidan Quinn ) as the most brilliant student he's seen. His opinion soon changes when Liu's interest in dark matter leads him to contradict Reiser's theories.
Rarely has the theme of Chinese immigrants in Western academia been handled so sensitively, or humorously. First-time director Chen Shi-Zheng, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1987, has a terrific eye and ear for the subtlest hint of condescension or East-meets-West irony. He gets a brave, fresh performance from Liu (Curse Of The Golden Flower) and the rest of his fine cast (including, of course, Streep). The film looks lovely; and listen for the clever snatches of music on the soundtrack.
I have to mention the ending. Let me just say it'll spark arguments.
Among the fest's documentaries, it'd be hard to top the fascinating subject of Doctor (Friday November 16, 5:45 pm, Innis Town Hall, rating: NNN ). Director Mong-Hong Chung focuses on the figure of Dr. Wen , a Taiwanese American physician who has left his practice in small-town Iowa to work in Miami.
It's hard not to give away too much about the film (the Reel Asian program notes ruin a big reveal), but the film contrasts Dr. Wen's treatment of a patient with that of his own son.
Chung makes great use of home video footage - some of the material is difficult to watch - but his decision to film the entire movie in black-and-white doesn't feel justified.
If you're looking for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, check out Owl And The Sparrow (Friday, November 16, 8 pm, Innis Town Hall, rating: NNN ), a beautifully shot drama about a dreamy little girl ( Pham Thi Han ), who runs away from her Vietnamese village and joins the hordes of street kids selling flowers and postcards in Saigon.
There, she plays matchmaker to two lonely souls and attempts to create a surrogate family.
It's a bit sentimental and overly symbolic, but it's directed with a poetic eye and lots of conviction.