There are some topics that can’t be done justice through a single film. For director Miao Wang, a look at the changing sociocultural environment of contemporary China needed to be done in three.
Mainleland is part two of a trilogy of films from Wang. It premiered on March 11 at the South by Southwest Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas.
Filmed over three years in China and the U.S., Maineland follows two teenagers of China’s wealthy elite as they settle into a boarding school in blue-collar rural Maine. Stella, a bubbly, fun-loving teen, and quieter, more introspective Harry, come to America seeking a Western-style education and the promise of a Hollywood-style school experience.
But as the American dream slowly gain more clarity, worlds collide as their relationship to home and country takes on a surprisingly poignant new aspect.
The film is executive produced by Jia-Huai Wang and Jin-Huan Liu, while producer credits go to Miao Wang, Violet Du Feng, Robert Chang, Damon G. Smith.
Wang first began the project back in 2011, when Fryeburg Academy — one of the oldest private schools in the U.S. — invited her to screen her first feature doc, Beijing Taxi, on their campus. The school has an international student body of 160, of which one-third or more are Chinese.
Wang noticed large groups of Chinese students gathered around tables in the cafeteria, and she became fascinated by how these students were arriving in Maine. Her doc explores how more and more schools in America are faced with an increasingly large body of Chinese students, and questions the expectations that Chinese families and students have about America.
“I think there’s a lot of discussion that can come out of this film and a lot of questions about what the lasting impact of this educational system from China,” says Wang.
Following the two Chinese teens as they tried to assimilate into U.S. culture wasn’t uncharted territory for Wang. She herself grew up in Beijing and at age 13 immigrated to the U.S. with her parents.
“It was really alienating and difficult,” says Wang. “But I was with my parents at the time, so I think it’s even harder for these kids who are sent alone for school. They’re just thrown into this new school environment and have to integrate themselves.”
When it came to the challenges behind creating the film, Wang says one of the biggest obstacles proved to be one of the most stereotypical: following the social lives of the teens.
“Stella always had a circle of people around her, and her group of friends was always rotating,” explains Wang. “She was constantly surrounded, and sometimes her friends would want to be on camera, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’d want to go out, and sometimes they’d just stay in. It was definitely a challenge.”
With the two teens’ experiences being the focal point of the doc, the theme of perspective became important to both the story and shooting choices. Many of the interviews are filmed over the shoulder, often when the students are speaking to someone — the admissions officer, the teacher or the parents, for example — to accentuate perceptions and point of view.
“A lot of the movie is about perceptions, and blurry impressions, and I wanted that to come through,” explains Wang. “We played around with that concept throughout the film, so you’ll notice that the doc begins with a lot of blurring, and gradually becomes clearer as the students gain a bit more insight and perspective.”
Wang also made different filming choices when it came to juxtaposing the bustling cityscapes of fast-developing China with the quiet, small-town landscapes of Maine. While the crowded streets of the Chinese cities have a more handheld and gritty feel, Maine’s shooting style was more static and expansive.
Maineland‘s premiere at SXSW isn’t Wang’s first experience with the festival. She premiered her first feature doc, Beijing Taxi, which followed three cab drivers in Beijing, at SXSW in 2010. The film was screened at over 50 festivals with a U.S. theatrical release, broadcast on PBS, and distributed by Sundance Artist Services. She’s hoping to see similar success with this film.
Wang plans for the third film in the trilogy to tackle China’s sexual revolution, also exploring how China is looking to the West as an influence.
“Even though these films are about specific places and times, with specific contexts, I hope they’ll be timeless,” Wang says. “I like to think of these films as time capsules of a specific period in China and its interaction with the Western world.”
Maineland screened during SXSW on March 11 and March 12. It will be screened again on March 15. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.