Film Review: MainelandThe physical, intellectual and emotional journey of Chinese students transplanted to the state of Maine has its considerable rewards, as well as a couple of winning protagonists.
The eternal clash between the East and the West has rarely been more graphically illustrated than by Maineland.
Miao Wang’s doc focuses on a few teenage students who fly from their native China to attend the prestigious private high school Freyburg Academy, founded in 1792 in Maine. Stella Xinyi Zhu, from Shanghai, and Harry Junru He, of Guangzhou, although they share a language and culture, couldn’t be more different. While apprehensive about this American new world, Stella easily becomes quite popular, through her prettiness and down-to-earth charm. Harry, on the other hand, is less of a social butterfly, and hangs on much more to the traditions his parents abide by, finding solace in the piano music he enjoys playing.
If nothing else, Wang presents an absorbing and rare intimate look at the lives of the rich Chinese which seem to have sprung up everywhere with the last generation, and whose entrepreneurial money now cushions them with luxurious access. Happily, although these kids are indeed rich, they’re still a far cry from the many examples of entitled, loudly nattering, cellphone-obsessed and downright rude American Millennials. Their new teachers have opened their eyes to many new things, but I would say that critical thinking is the most important thing Stella and Henry have embraced, despite the typical Asian conformity instilled in them all their lives in China.
Stella, who has even achieved that social peak status of high school—being a cheerleader—states that what she really wants to do is teach little children, although she fears that her doting mogul dad would rather have her take over his business reins. Versatile Henry, who wistfully yearns with unrequited love for a girl he is too shy to approach, is fascinated by philosophy as well as business, and dreams of becoming a composer. He also would like to develop the marketing of blueberries—a specialty of Maine he has just discovered—to the Chinese back home.
The kids’ interaction with their parents provide some of this winning film’s most winning moments. Stella’s mother, separated from the adulterous father Stella no longer idolizes, comes to visit and the two have a lively exchange about the scary openness of Americans, especially the ones physically attracted to Stella, and how slacking off on her studies has made her a social success. And while the withdrawn Henry may not be quite as intimate with his father and sweet, weepy mom (who just misses her boy), his declaration that his loving and proud family is the most important part of his life is very touching.
Both kids surprise you by the movie’s ending—which is rife with all those high-school graduation emotions, from jubilation to sudden, tearful wistfulness—as they talk about how their Chinese roots remain strong in them, despite all the new wonders they’ve experienced. Although they intelligently reject basic Chinese notions, like material wealth bringing instant, permanent happiness, they admit they cannot shun other values in their culture that they still find more comfortable, when all is said and and done. One of their student projects is a film addressing typical Western ideas of Asians—i.e., smart, shy, hard-working, with a tendency to clique together with their own. Stella admits that while there is a certain truth in these stereotypes, it’s certainly not the entire picture. She herself is living proof of this—although why is this stunner shunted to the back row of cheerleaders performing on the field? I, for one, would welcome a follow-up film by Wang in ten years to see where they are in life, so thoroughly did they capture my heart and mind.
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