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Asian American doctor in focus: ‘Sight’ tells story of medical hero who helped blind see

By Jevon Phillips, Los Angeles Times
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:04am

When Dr. Ming Wang came to the United States in 1982 at 21 years old, he had nothing but $50 and a Chinese-to-English translation book. He had just survived the violent cultural revolution in China — including the loss of a dear friend — during which the government had shut down most of the universities in the country.

We see this and much more in flashbacks throughout the movie “Sight,” which is based on Wang’s autobiography “From Darkness to Sight” and is now in theaters. In it, Wang (played by Terry Chen) ends up earning medical doctorates from Harvard and MIT (graduating magna cum laude from the latter), while also earning a Ph.D. (laser physics, University of Maryland). He discovers a new way to potentially help blind people see — using an amniotic membrane contact lens if you want to get technical — as he and his medical partner Dr. Misha Bartnovsky (played by Greg Kinnear) embark on a mission to help orphans regain their sight.

The National Library of Medicine estimates that over the last 25 years, more than 20 million eyes were treated with laser eye surgery. Wang’s pioneering medical technique has restored the eyesight of millions around the world. As one of the leading experts in the field, Wang’s impact and philanthropy have been recognized in his home state of Tennessee, but his story may not be as widely known. As May was Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Wang, who also executive-produced the film, wants to contribute to the storytelling tapestry of this country.

“My main motivation? Asian American stories are not told in American mainstream media too often. Authentic representation is a rare occurrence. I wanted to encourage Asian Americans, Chinese Americans and all immigrants to tell our story,” says Wang. “I will say, though, it’s a humbling experience.”

Chen, a Canadian actor, was not only struck by Wang’s medical accomplishments, but also by the general and specific nature of his tale.

“It had nothing to do with kung fu or martial arts. It had nothing to do with being a gang member or any of the other tropes Hollywood has tripped over. And it also spoke to a larger swath of the immigrant story and the larger diaspora that exists outside of Asia,” says Chen.

Directed by Andrew Hyatt, and also starring Ben Wang, Fionnula Flanagan and Natasha Mumba, the film had the benefit of having Wang on the set. He was there to help consult on the technical jargon and operating room scenes, but many in the crew took advantage of his presence to ask for advice on medical issues. It was a welcome assurance on a 2020 set that was in the midst of working through a pandemic.

“Dr. Wang was a great resource to have,” says Kinnear. “This is the first movie that I did, that many of us did, after COVID. I kind of had a little bit of hesitation about the journey, but I felt like when I read Dr. Wang’s story, it put everything into perspective very quickly.”

The inspirational nature of the story may have even helped the mood on the set as well.

“When you finally go and you meet everybody and they slowly peel down their masks … I have to say that in the case of this film, [the substance of the story] did trickle down. There was an inspiring good feeling on the set,” says Kinnear.

In the film, Wang tries to restore the sight of a young girl named Kajal (Mia Swaminathan) who is brought to his clinic by a nun ( Flanagan). It is one of the many touches in the film that put faith at the center of Wang’s struggles and his triumphs. This particular case is one that led to his revelation about using the placenta to create his curative lens, but it was also a case/client that tested his resolve.

“The reason that Kajal was chosen [to be the central case in the film] was because it was a very challenging case. Her injury was so severe that I had to dig deep to find a solution,” says Wang. “People say there’s no common ground between science and faith. Fortunately, I didn’t give up and as a Christian I kept praying.”