Producers: Darren Moorman, David Fischer and Vicki Sotheran   Director: Andrew Hyatt   Screenplay:  Andrew Hyatt, John Duigan and Buzz McLaughlin   Cast: Terry Chen, Greg Kinnear, Danni Wang, Raymond Ma, Ben Wang, Wai Ching Ho, Fionnula Flanagan, Natasha Mumba, Mia SwamiNathan, Garland Chang, Donald Heng, Leanne Wang, Jeffrey Pai, Jayden Zhang, Sara Ye, Peter Chan, Kenneth Liu, Ken Godmere, Kiana Luo and Leslie Parmer   Distributor: Angel Studios

Grade: C

A desire to inspire imbues what an opening caption informs us is the “incredible true story” of Dr. Ming Wang, a Chinese-American ophthalmologist whose groundbreaking work in sight restoration is recounted in his 2016 memoir, “From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing,” on which director Andrew Hyatt and his collaborators John Duigan and Buzz McLaughlin based their screenplay.  And, in fact, Wang’s efforts to develop new techniques to literally help the blind see—the amniotic membrane contact lens, for example—are impressive in terms of the progress in medical science they represent. And his establishment of a foundation to make them widely available is surely commendable.

But the intent of “Sight” to be uplifting is not limited to the doctor’s substantial achievements in his field; it also involves dramatizing how he had to struggle from a childhood in the China of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to reach America, earn his degrees and assemble the resources that enabled his research.  Wang’s life makes for a remarkable story; a pity this slow, oddly muted movie doesn’t do it justice.

“Sight” begins with an appalling prologue in which a woman in Calcutta (Leslie Parmer) deliberately blinds her stepdaughter Kajal (Mia SwamiNathan) in hopes of making her a sadder, more effective beggar.  Cut to Dr. Wang (Terry Chen, rigid and subdued) describing his latest progress to reporters at his Nashville institute, leading his colleague and friend Misha Bartnovsky (Greg Kinnear, ebullient and jokey) to chide him for being so unemotional. 

Soon after the two researchers are introduced to blind Kajal, who’s brought to them by her caretaker Sister Marie (Fionnula Flanagan) in hopes they’ll help her.  Wang’s conclusion that they won’t be able to restore her sight triggers an emotional crisis: he begins to experience visions of a young girl, his closest friend back in China, who was forcibly taken from their hometown of Hangzhou in the mid-1970s and whose memory haunts him.

That leads to the fracturing of the movie into different chronological parts, which Hyatt and editor Dan O’Brien try to meld smoothly without much success, the result lurching from one to another and back again in a stuttering fashion.  One portrays Wang’s youth in China, but even here there’s a division between his experiences at age eight (where he’s played by Jayden Zhang), fourteen and twenty-one (the role now assumed by Ben Wang).  Throughout he’s nurtured by his doting parents Zhensheng (Donald Heng) and Alian (Leanne Wang), both doctors, and is close to classmate Lili (played at eight by Kiana Luo and at fourteen by Sara Ye) and her grandfather Gao (Peter Chan). 

But circumstances change over this period: it’s the era of the Cultural Revolution that broke out in 1966, and his happy thoughts as a youngster about following in his parents’ footsteps into medicine are shattered when in 1974 ideological thugs headed by dogmatic Bin Lao (Jeffrey Pai) break into the teen’s classroom and drag off his teacher (Kenneth Liu) as a relic of the country’s feudal past.  The “uprisers,” as they’re called, also trash the boy’s musical instrument, an erhu, drag Lili off (presumably to a camp), and beat Gao, who is by now wheel-chair bound and blind as a result of a work accident (Zhensheng had pronounced his injury beyond help), to death.

Frankly, the screenplay is rather hazy on the details of the Cultural Revolution: is Bin Lao’s group meant to be Red Guards (actually suppressed in 1968) or autonomous troublemakers?  The film also understates the government’s support for the rebels.  But it gets the date of the end of the movement correct—it was brought to heel after Mao’s death in 1976), and it’s in that year that the universities are reopened and Ming is able finally to resume his studies.

The next chunk of the movie, rather summarily treated, begins with Ming, a top student, being invited to M.I.T. by Professor McNesby (Ken Godmere) in 1981.  His introduction to America provides an opportunity for some dumb culture-clash comedy, as when he and his two Chinese friends buy horrendous new clothes at the Salvation Army in an attempt to fit in, but also offers a more serious indication of anti-Asian discrimination in academia when a dean dismisses his chances of getting into medical school.  His test scores, however, earn him entrance to Harvard.

But the greater portion of the American material deals with Ming’s research work.  His despondency over his failure to help Kajal is balanced by comic-sentimental interaction with his family—his father (now played by Raymond Ma), mother (Wai Ching Ho) and lovably slacker young brother Yu (Garland Chang)—and by his success, after prodding from Misha, in treating a new patient, Maria (Esabella Anna Karena Strickland), which brings him a degree of closure in dealing with his guilt over Lili.  He also loosens up and looks for romance—long urged on him by both his family and Misha.  The result is a relationship with beautiful Anle (Danni Wang).

Shot around Vancouver on what was probably a limited budget, the movie’s technical side is reasonably good (the production design is by Chris August, the costumes by Nicole Swan, the cinematography by Michael Balfry).  But Chen’s wooden performance, the script’s clumsy construction and a plodding pace set by Hyatt and O’Brien weigh it down, and Sean Philip Johnson’s score is overbearing.  Though some of the supporting cast (Kinnear, Chan) is energetic, moreover, most are simply stolid, with a few (Pai, Chang) overwrought.          

One can understand why this story appealed to Angel Studios, which specializes in faith-based films, since Wang’s work inevitably reminds one of Gospel miracles in which Jesus cures blindness.  And indeed in his memoir Wang explores his conversion from the atheism of his communist youth to Christianity under the influence of a professor who espoused the creationist idea of intelligent design, and emphasizes the importance of religion in his life.  It’s curious, then, that Hyatt, whose previous films include the very Christian “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018) with Jim Caviezel, and “The Blind” (2023), a redemption story about Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” clan, downplays this part of the story, treating it only obliquely through the characters of Kajal and Sister Marie.

Perhaps that’s why the film includes a studio postscript in which Wang himself speaks directly to the audience about his faith and urges viewers to “pay it forward” by purchasing tickets to the movie for others–a mechanism that helped turn “Sound of Freedom” into an unexpected smash last year. But given the quality of “Sight,” that might not a gift many recipients will be thankful for.