Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Director Miao Wang's quiet, observational style sits appropriately at odds with the technicolour America the students expected."

One of the few things more nerve-racking than moving to another continent at high school age must be letting one's children do so. Nevertheless, large numbers of Chinese schoolchildren sign up to study at US high schools every year, now totalling 40% of all that country's internatonal students. They're drawn in by the promise of an experience mirroring what they see in the movies - football jocks and cheerleaders, bowling alleys and MacDonalds, exuberant parties and designer clothes, all set to a John Hughes soundtrack. In addition to this there's the career advantage of having gone to a foreign school and having a network that extends around the world.

Maineland follows Stella from Shanghai and Harry from Guangzhou as they strive to come to terms with an environment that's different in ways they didn't anticipate. Stella is outgoing, enthusiastic, keen to embrace the new even whilst she frets that it's not good for her waistline. Harry is naturally shy, made more so by the language barrier (both speak good English but, like any foreign learners, sometimes stumble), and prefers to immerse himself in his studies whilst Stella parties. But as she excels at making friends (her mother saying she wishes she would show equivalent proficiency in her studies), he finds himself absorbed by Western traditions of thought, blending them with Chinese philosophy to find his own intellectual direction.

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The two are studying at Freyburg Academy, a private boarding school just outside Portland, and though they receive little by way of support from staff, the sense of community fostered by this insular environment clearly helps them to adjust. There's also a Chinese restaurant nearby where they can go when they're homesick or simply want to relax into their native language for a while. We explore these places with them in a documentary that invites us to relate to their experience of home and other even when diferent things might fit those categories for us.

Director Miao Wang's quiet, observational style sits appropriately at odds with the technicolour America the students expected, and lets their interpretations of what they encounter come to the fore. This is not a film replete with big revelations, but it effectively draws out the details that unsettle and give the migratory experience its power. Neither student knows quite what will happen next. Stella's mother notes that once such children would have returned to support their families, but says she won't be surprised if her daughter decides to make a life in the US. The bird has flown the cage, she says, and it's a metaphor that extends to a changing China. Still, what the students' embrace of Western culture tells us is that, to the extent that it becomes a force in their lives, it will have a distinctly Chinese character.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2018
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A documentary following two 'parachute students' who travel from China for a US high school experience.

Director: Miao Wang

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: China, US


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