Mai's America is one of those wonderful, out-of-left-field documentaries that makes writing about independent films such an educational delight. It follows a North Vietnamese teen-ager as she arrives in the United States on a student exchange program. And while she discovers that almost everything she thought she knew about America was wrong, it's the American viewer who has the most to learn about our land of opportunity.
Filmmaker Marlo Poras describes Mai as a "spunky, mini-skirted daughter of Ho Chi Minh's revolution." Her father, who now owns several small hotels in Vietnam, fought in what Mai calls "the American war," and she takes pride in the victory over the United States and its "pawns," the South Vietnamese.
But the U.S. presence is still felt in the movie posters and Hollywood dreams that flow through the popular culture that Mai consumes in Vietnam, and it makes her want to come to America to finish her senior year of high school and then get a college education.
This is where the film opens with Mai, a cosmopolitan child of some privilege, talking in a friendly but patronizing way to a group of shoeshine boys working the streets of Hanoi. The segment gives us a brilliant snapshot of Mai's sense of her own social status as she embarks for the United States, and what she encounters once she arrives is an education for all of us in U.S. social class strata.
Mai's first shock is the host family of three that she winds up with in Meridian, Miss. - self-proclaimed "rednecks." Neither the mother nor the father works, and both they and their teen-age daughter clearly suffer from depression.
"I'm the kind of person who laughs a lot," Mai says in voiceover narration. "I do it because I want to make the host family feel good. And sometimes it's when I don't feel comfortable."
Mai doesn't feel comfortable a lot with the family, and her greatest frustration is in her failure to make the people she's living with laugh with her - or, at least, smile. She does forge a connection with the grandparents of the teen-age girl with whom she's living, but this is such a horrible mismatch, it makes you wonder who's in charge of this exchange program anyway. My one criticism of the film is that it does not answer that question. But that's primarily a journalistic concern, and Poras is doing cultural anthropology here. It airs on P.O.V. at 11:30 p.m. tomorrow on MPT.
Mai does eventually get a new host family, a young African-American couple (he's 24, she's 21), who involve her much more in their lives. But, as comfortable as Mai seems to be, there is a scene in a beauty salon that suggests some African-Americans see Mai as an outsider - every bit as much of an outsider as if she were a member of the white family she just left.
Mai does find one friend in Mississippi, a young man named Chris who is into cross-dressing and a gay club scene to which he introduces her. Chris was initially attracted to Mai because he thought she was a boy, but they become fast friends anyway despite her gender. He gives her tips on makeup, she wants to take him to senior prom. I probably don't have to tell you this narrative doesn't have a happy ending, but you will be surprised at the kind of unhappy ending it does have for Mai.
Somehow, she gets through senior year at a Mississippi high school with one great teacher and a curriculum that seems better suited to elementary school. And, then, she gets into Tulane University, and it's on to New Orleans. I won't tell you how that part of the story ends, but I do have to describe the final image of the film to give you some sense of what an amazing effort this is by a first-time filmmaker.
The film ends with Mai working in a nail salon in Detroit. She has found some sense of community among the Vietnamese emigrants working in the salon, but in some ways she seems almost as depressed by her circumstances as the members of her first host family were by their lives.
The final scene finds Mai on her knees giving a pedicure to a rather garish-looking woman who patronizes her just as Mai patronized the shoeshine boys at the start of the film. The woman directs Mai in how to scrape her calluses and trim her toenails. You cannot look at this tableau and not acknowledge the differences in social class.
Mai, with head bowed, complies with the directions she is given, though she does still show signs of spunk in her last words of the film as she smilingly tells the woman that she reminds her of her friend - Chris. The woman is pleased.