VIFF 2017 | Maineland

Posted by Annie Chung & filed under VIFF.

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Dir: Miao Wang | Panorama | Youth | Documentaries | China/USA | 2017 | 90 mins

Thursday, Oct. 5, 1 p.m. | SFU Goldcorp
Saturday, Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m. | International Village 9

From director Miao Wang comes an award-winning (Special Jury Award, SXSW 17) documentary that follows two expat teens on their journey from Mainland China to boarding school in Maine, USA.

Like generations of Chinese elite before them, Stella and Harry are sent abroad to study English in America. They are both from affluent, well-off families. Stella is an older sister. Harry is an older brother and the only grandson in his family for three generations. Their families have high expectations for them. “Studying in America is not just about grades,” Harry’s father reminds him. “Your future workplace will likely be multinational […] So you will have to interact with all kinds of people.”

They arrive at Fryeburg Academy in Maine’s countryside. The school is one of America’s oldest private institutions. With a population of only 3,500, the town is a definite contrast to the rich industrious city of Shanghai. Instead of flashing neon signs on sky-high concrete buildings, short two-storey structures are sprinkled sparingly along its quiet streets. There is one lone Chinese restaurant. Compared to the bustling walkways of Shanghai, Fryeburg is slow and contemplative, and encourages our protagonists to be too.

The academy itself is a microcosm of society. Students from all around the world study here, though more and more Chinese students are enrolled each year than from any other country. Stella is quick to make new friends, becomes a cheerleader and has a number of romances. Harry, on the other hand, keeps mostly to himself. In one scene, we watch him in his dorm room as he plays League of Legends. In another, he is alone playing the piano.

As we watch Stella and Harry adjust to their new lives, we also see how students and staff at the academy interact with them. Though Wang never directly addresses the social or racial issues that affect our protagonists, we are made hyperaware of their existence. One teacher offhandedly mentions she can’t tell her Chinese students apart and attributes it to a mental block. In a series of interview clips, other students describe their Chinese classmates as shy, hardworking and academically focused people. It is difficult to watch Stella and Harry fight against these stereotypes, especially when some of those commonly perceived idiosyncrasies happen to be true. It is equally difficult to watch their classmates and teachers conform to theirs.

Wang’s Maineland is as much about struggling to find one’s identity as it is about searching for belonging. It is about school culture, about teen life and about self-discovery. Although Stella and Harry are unsure of their futures at the end of the film, they are hopeful, and we are too, of their continued successes in America and elsewhere.

Besides being a brilliant play on words, Maineland breathes new life and complexity into issues so frequently talked about – multiculturalism, diversity and identity.

Watch the trailer here.

Schema is proud to be the community sponsor of Maineland at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.

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