Documentary Review: ‘Maineland’

Review by James Lindorf

Today there are approximately 350,000 students who have traveled from mainland China to the United States to attend both public and private schools, a six-fold increase from just 10 years ago. Maineland is the latest film from director Miao Wang and is the winner of the Special Jury Award at both South by Southwest and the Independent Film Festival of Boston. It is the second film in Wang’s trilogy exploring the changing socio-cultural environment of contemporary China. The first was 2010’s Beijing Taxi. Filmed over the course of three years in China and the U.S., Maineland follows Stella and Harry through the process of applying, attending and graduating from Maine’s private Freyburg Academy. The film is both a coming-of-age story, as well as an exploration of the impact of changing cultures, and hits the balance of educational and entertaining. Maineland will be available in select theaters on March 16th.

This is a strong movie that looks at the changes going on in young people as well as around the world. China is experiencing a growth spurt, and those with newfound wealth want the best for their children and the best chance to keep wealth coming into the family. To them, that chance lies in America where the rich have ruled and only gotten richer over the last 242 years. It is also an escape from the rigid Chinese education system with the chance to attend a prestigious American university. The parents know they will miss their children and that they may choose to never return home. There’s also the chance that the person who returns may be unfamiliar to them. With all of those possibilities, Stella and Harry are sent from their homes in and near major Chinese cities to the remoteness of the Maine countryside. The most important thing for a documentary of this nature is choosing the right subjects to follow. In that respect, Wang nailed it by choosing the bubbly Stella and reserved Harry.

The movie is beautifully shot, thanks to cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who captured the vibrancy of the large cities in China and the rustic charm of Maine equally well. With three years of footage edited down into a 90-minute movie, there are obviously some things that I wish would have been elaborated on. I would have loved to see more of the dichotomy of the kids. Like how Stella says she never studies but she is obviously very concerned about her grades as shown when she questions why she only received an A-. I know so many personal details about Stella and Harry, like their dreams for the future and what they are willing to give up to achieve it or to make their families happy. On the other hand, I feel like I don’t know them at all. I couldn’t tell you what their favorite subject was, who their best friend is or name a single person in their family. With the wonderful shots and the interesting subjects, I could have watched a 3-hour cut of this movie and not been bored. I think what Wang offers here is poignant and inspiring but I was left wanting more. That could just be me. It’s likely that if you give this film the chance it deserves, you will get everything you want out of it.

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