(The 2017 SXSW Film Festival opened on March 10 and ran all week until March 18. HtN has you covered and GUARANTEE more coverage than any other site! Check out this review of Maineland Miao Wang’s new documentary.)
In director Miao Wang’s new documentary – the second in a trilogy that began with Beijing Taxi, in 2010 – we follow a group of Chinese teenagers as they come to the United States to study in a private boarding school. These particular students elect to attend Fryeburg Academy, in Maine, which has long played host to foreign nationals (as have many of its peer institutions). At one time it was the Japanese who predominated, then the Koreans, and now, with the increasing rise of China as a global superpower, it’s the turn of the Chinese (there are students from beyond Asia, as well, though in smaller numbers). Since the late 1990s, enrollments of Americans in these kinds of schools have decreased, so the increase from abroad is more than welcome. The resulting movie, Maineland (such a perfect title, both witty and succinct), is a marvel of deft observational filmmaking, revealing perceptive truths about what unites and divides us as a species, and how cross-cultural exchanges are a benefit to all.
To avoid overwhelming the audience with data, Wang chooses two main characters, a boy and a girl, Harry and Stella, each of whom has a very different trajectory over the course of the three years we spend with them. Harry is nerdy and somewhat awkward, while Stella is a social butterfly. We meet them first in China, as they ponder their choices of where to study, and then travel with them to Maine. In this early section, we see how they are very much part of the new elite that dominates China’s business class today. Stella lives in what looks like a palace, and though Harry’s house is more modest in design, he clearly comes from money. And yet both understand the need to work hard to get ahead, and see the trip to America as an opportunity to further their chances to succeed in a multicultural world. I would have perhaps liked a little bit more exploration of China’s growing class divide, but the film has other priorities.
And so, for three years, we watch them grow. Harry eventually settles in, leaning increasingly towards an international outlook, while Stella, initially so liberated by the American experience, looks homeward for her future, more comfortable with her Chinese peers than she thought she would be. It’s an interesting shift, just one of many surprises in store for the viewer. Over the course of a brisk 90 minutes, Wang weaves a fascinating tale – devoid of traditional documentary talking-head interviews – that profiles the intellectual and social development of two smart and determined individuals. Shot mostly by indie cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Christmas, Again), who works in both documentaries and narratives, the film is a visual marvel. Wang packs a lot of information – three years! – into this brief, but sharply observed little jewel, and all of it of consequence to the world today. As America lurches towards greater isolationism, it’s worth considering how much we, and the world, profit when we keep our doors and minds open.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)