Miao Wang's 'Maineland' Documentary Brings Cultural Perspective

03/17/2017 02:24 pm ET
A still from <em>Maineland</em>
A still from Maineland

From streets lined with multicolored LED screens to country roads decorated by autumn leaves, Maineland follows the stories of two Chinese high school students who leave their country to attend boarding school in Fryeburg, Maine. While the documentary is primarily a coming-of-age tale, it is also an eye-opening cultural commentary on two seemingly opposite countries. In Miao Wang’s sophomore film, Stella Xinyi Zhu from Shanghai and Harry Junru He from Guangzhou are filmed over the span of three years. Each student is ambitious and affluent, being fully accustomed to metropolitan life which makes their adjustment to the countryside an added challenge.

Just as Americans are fed a particular view of China, so too are the Chinese given a certain depiction of America. Maineland reveals how some of these views are unfounded while others are misunderstood. Stella and Harry are intelligent and eager to expand their minds within a new school system that still projects the age-old sentiment of the American dream. Though there are plenty of reasons that brought them to Maine, the reality is that enrollment at the Fryeburg Academy along with many of America’s boarding schools, has significantly declined leading them to recruit students from countries all over Asia—primarily China.

The film begins in Shanghai and Guangzhou as we observe the student’s way of life, their family’s background, and their aspirations of studying in America. Both Stella and Harry share similar feelings about what life in America will be like—they fantasize about more free time, less homework and the chance to follow their dreams. Stella, a fan of the movie High School Musical, pictures herself as a cheerleader, smiling and dancing with adoring boys while Harry hopes to sharpen his critical thinking skills and compose music. Each has their own unique fantasy and Maineland brings these two parallel stories together in Fryeburg, a small town best known in the region for its agricultural fair.

What makes this film sociologically interesting is that Stella and Harry did not end up in New York City, Los Angeles, or any other major metropolitan area, but rather in the rural countryside of Maine, a place that many Americans have not even ventured (or heard of). As products of highly advanced cities, Stella and Harry discover the simple joys of nature hikes and boat rides as well as the inimitable beauty of a Northeastern autumn. Being so used to the daily grind of homework and studying, they finally make time to explore, slow down, socialize, and even date—much to the parent’s chagrin. To the average American teenager, football games and dances are commonplace, but to Stella and Harry, they are one-of-a-kind experiences.

Wang—who recently won awards for this film at SXSW—is known for creating documentaries that inspire cultural understanding and a humanistic perspective of the world. In Maineland, we see how two cultures who depict themselves to each other as opposing, come together amid a vast sea of differences. Stella discovers the true meaning of friendship as she grew up in a culture where friendship does not carry the same value as family. Harry begins to understand the allure of capitalism and how a huge part of the human experience is becoming your own, free-thinking individual. Though both are still tied to their Chinese heritage, they were able to merge these two worlds, adapting the best aspects from each to improve and grow.

This story could have been told through the perspectives of Chinese businessmen or college students who frequently travel to the America, but instead it was told through the ingenuous eyes of two teenagers. While the parents reasons for sending them to Fryeburg was rooted in the intention of giving them a leg up with American relations for a future in the global marketplace, Stella and Harry’s goals were much simpler—to enjoy the present and discover a new reality.

By opening up your mind to the customs of other countries through experience versus through hearsay, an internal transformation occurs. Wang has captured this transformation in Maineland as we see how friendship, fun, and self-discovery are things that most humans desire—whether they know it or not.

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