‘Maineland’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

Maineland Still Stella Grad SXSW - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Three Waters Productions
Ambitious but lacking in substantial insight.

Miao Wang’s sophomore feature documentary premiered in competition at the Austin festival.

For generations of American elites, attending boarding school has been a familiar rite of passage, but for two immigrant high school students from Mainland China, it’s an entirely new and unfamiliar experience. Maineland, Miao Wang’s follow-up to her 2010 SXSW feature documentary Beijing Taxi, again considers the country’s changing socioeconomic landscape, but the constrained focus on the experiences of two young people sheds limited light on these rapidly advancing developments, suggesting that small-screen exposure may be most appropriate.

As U.S. boarding school enrollments began falling off in the 1990s, Maine’s private Freyburg Academy, located an hour outside Portland, turned to Asia to recruit new students. Japanese high schoolers were the first to respond, followed by South Koreans, and by the 2000s the market had shifted to China. Chinese students represented half of the school’s international enrollments in 2015, attracted by Freyburg’s longstanding reputation in education, as well as admission director Christopher Hibbard’s annual road show and recruitment tour of Mainland cities. Many Freyburg applicants are seeking to circumvent the rote learning and frequent exams required by the national education system, as well as highly competitive university entrance requirements.

Teenagers Stella Xinyi Zhu from Shanghai and Harry Junru He of Guangzhou join Freyburg for the fall 2012 semester to try and boost their chances for admission to U.S. universities and broaden their skills to achieve a competitive advantage in their future careers. Both are kids from well-off professional families and fairly fluent English speakers, but find that moving to a rural Maine town (population approximately 3,500) turns out to be a significant cultural adjustment more than anything else. The school’s emphasis on liberal arts subjects and the role of critical thinking is also challenging, and while Stella escapes academic pressures by socializing and joining the cheerleading team, Harry remains more isolated, returning to his beloved piano playing in moments of solitude. Neither really seems to have a clear idea about what they can expect after graduating and the pressures of ultimately succeeding at an American university, however.

Freyburg would seem an odd choice for Chinese students, since there aren’t any Mandarin-speaking faculty or administrators among those featured in the film and new arrivals appear to receive only cursory counseling about how to manage in their unfamiliar surroundings. But perhaps the $50,000 annual tuition seems like a bargain for a full-immersion English-language learning experience. Or maybe the boarding school experience is unfamiliar to urban Chinese residents, who may not know what to expect in terms of services or support. In any case, after some initial uncertainty, Harry and Stella settle into their respective routines and manage to adjust by socializing primarily with other Mainland students both on campus and at the local Chinese restaurant.

Wang’s verite approach attempts to strike a tone somewhere between revealing and contemplative, but her principal subjects are too young and inexperienced with the world to have much of import to say. Many of the Freyburg Academy teachers and staffmembers seem little worldlier, sometimes lacking critical insight beyond their rural New England community. The Chinese students’ parents are probably the most prescient, recognizing that with the evolution of the nation’s economy, their kids will be interacting directly with Americans in the global marketplace and will benefit from their exposure to U.S. education and culture.

Production company: Three Waters Productions
Director: Miao Wang
Producers: Miao Wang, Violet Du Feng, Damon G. Smith, Robert Chang
Executive producers: Jia-Huai Wang, Jin-Huan Liu
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Elizabeth Rao
Music: Stephen Ulrich
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)

89 minutes