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Maineland (2017)

Stella and Harry are affluent, cosmopolitan teenagers who are part of the enormous wave of "parachute students" from Mainland China enrolling in U.S. private schools. Shot over three years ... See full summary »

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Stella and Harry are affluent, cosmopolitan teenagers who are part of the enormous wave of "parachute students" from Mainland China enrolling in U.S. private schools. Shot over three years in China and the U.S., MAINELAND tells a multi-layered coming-of-age tale, following this buoyant, fun-loving girl and introspective boy as they settle into a boarding school in blue-collar small-town rural Maine. They come seeking a Western-style education, escape from the dreaded Chinese college entrance exam, and the promise of a Hollywood-style U.S. high school experience. But as their fuzzy visions of the American dream slowly gain more clarity, their relationship to home takes on a surprising new aspect.

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11 March 2017 (USA)  »

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Globalization High
21 October 2017 | by See all my reviews

Early on in Maineland, after a series of entrance interviews vetting potential high school students from Mainland China for candidacy for an international exchange to prestigious American boarding school Freyburg academy, the admissions director chortles at the camera, "I think they're just telling us what we'd like to hear." It's a beautifully subversive moment. On one hand, it microcosmically unearths the potential dissonance between cross-cultural values (the rampant individuality revered by the States vs. the pressure towards order and homogeneity in China) the rest of the film will continue to gently knead the wrinkles out of. It's a sneaky p*ss-take on a fundamentally inauthentic interview process, showing that, no matter what country they come from, most teenagers are fundamentally the same at heart. And, it's also a deceptive moment of self-reflexivity (after all, what is a documentary if not subjects, with varying gradients of authenticity, telling audiences what they think they'd like to hear?) that director Miao Wang subtly plants the seed for, then, playfully, proceeds to never again address. On the surface, Maineland is a fly-on-the-wall account of a group of these Chinese high schoolers spending a significant chunk of their teen years acquainting themselves with life in the U.S. at Freyburg. But it's also one of the more understated but insistent cinematic parables of globalization of the past several years, poking at roots of internationally symbiotic culture and commerce that will only continue to grow in tandem with the film's burgeoning protagonists.

Wang's directorial hand is as quietly tongue-in-cheek as it is unostentatious, her film a series of vignettes offering the briefest peeks into the lives of the students. Through a scattering of interviews and mirthful documentary eavesdropping, and focalized through two suitably contrasting leads - extroverted, giggly social butterfly Stella, and more withdrawn, philosophical Harry - Wang offers up snapshots of the student experience. In the 90 minutes we spend in their presence, we get fleeting, deliberate peeks into their social circles (integrating with the locals, and, largely, finding solace in hanging with the other Chinese students), their schoolwork, their personal existential struggles, and - perhaps most important - what to wear?

Seamless and beautifully shot as Maineland is, there's also an unshakable sense of Wang determining her own guiding focus throughout the course of making the film (at the Q&A following the film's Canadian premiere, she shared an amusing anecdote of having a prospective third 'lead character,' only to realize the girl in question was profoundly antisocial, and only ever wanted to sleep - a somewhat less compelling talking head). As such, several glimmers of subplots are flirted with then abandoned (one, detailing several of the Chinese students in a film class making their own meta-documentary on how their presence affects the Freyburg community is too fascinating for its omission here not to be a tragedy). These ably sketch out a more expansive experience for the students beyond the parameters of the camera lens, but also, consequently, make the film's pacing somewhat wobbly throughout.

The film's premise leaves countless avenues of theme and social commentary ripe for the picking, but, for the most part, Wang remains coyly mum on larger conversations you can tell she's just itching to play up. Instead, she lets the tiniest moments of poignancy speak volumes without crass accentuation - for class commentary (inescapable in the burgeoning economy of international tuition), the briefest teasing sequence of Stella agonizing over which of her several pairs of Jimmy Choos to wear to prom. For their part, the teens themselves are impressively candid and lucid with their intentions for the exchange (dodging rigorous Chinese post-secondary exams; advancing future career prospects; their parents wanting them to) - though, again, maybe they're just telling us what we want to hear. Conversely, many of the film's more revealing - and comedic - moments have several well-intentioned New Englander teachers tripping over their words trying to wax poetic about the influx of specifically Chinese international students, paradoxically exposing themselves as somewhat less worldly than they'd like to present.

The Freyburg admissions directors are more forthright: international tuition is what keeps their academy alive, and Chinese students alone comprise nearly half of that audience. It's simply too big a market not to tap into, even while postulating that both Chinese and American socioeconomic and cultural infrastructures will continue to change in interesting, imperceptible, and unpredictable ways as a result of the cultural cross-pollination. It's a sly, sobering breath of fresh air in a Western cultural landscape increasingly fraught with suspicion and hostility towards immigrants (another social commentary Wang, somewhat problematically, sidesteps).

Instead, Wang's film, rather than aggressively taking the topical bull by the horns, opts for a fundamentally friendlier, timeless take on a timely issue. Maineland is an unassuming treat - a gentle, wryly tongue-in-cheek meditation on adolescence, diasporic cultural identity, and the conflation of education and economy. It's one of the more subtly astute conversations on globalization packaged in a thoroughly pleasant, if not overtly groundbreaking, 90 minutes. And that is telling us exactly what we want to hear.

-8/10


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