Filmed over three years in China and the U.S., ‘Maineland’ is a multi-layered coming-of-age tale that follows two teenagers of China’s wealthy elite as they settle into a boarding school in blue-collar rural Maine.
This SXSW Award Winner (Jury Prize – Excellence in Observational Cinema) follows part of the enormous wave of “parachute students” enrolling in U.S. private schools, bubbly, fun-loving Stella and introspective Harry 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, worlds collide as their relationship to home and country takes on a surprisingly poignant new aspect.
Here, we introduce ‘Maineland’ with a few questions for its Director Miao Wang. Miao premiered her award-winning first feature doc, ‘Beijing Taxi’ at SXSW, screened at over 50 festivals with a US theatrical release, broadcast on PBS, and distributed by Sundance Artist Services.
What was the first aspect of ‘Maineland’ that occurred to you during the production phase? Was it a certain character, theme, scene, or something else entirely?
The inception for the film emerged out of a research and development trip to China for the second part of my trilogy on China’s rise after launching my first feature-doc BEIJING TAXI. BEIJING TAXI looked at the changing lives of taxi drivers and the city of Beijing on the run up to the Olympics. I was looking to turn my lens to the rising nouveau riche and everywhere I turned the dominant conversation was about education and studying abroad. Every student and their parents talked about the problems with the Chinese educational system and their desire to study abroad. As I have a personal experience coming as a young teenager to study in the U.S., I found an intimate and visceral connection to this topic.
Describe the visual strategy behind the film? How did your approach to the film’s photography develop over its production? Was there ever a moment of significant adjustment from your original vision?
The DP for the film Sean Price Williams is a long time collaborator. We first collaborated on BEIJING TAXI 10 years ago. I absolutely love his cinematic eye. There is an emotional poetry in the visions through his cinematic lens I rarely find elsewhere. He also works very nimble which is crucial for documentary cinematography. We have a shared visual sensibility so our collaboration is very organic. My visual approach to the film was to create a more neon dizzying feel for the metropolitan cityscape of China and a more static and expansive feel for Maine. We wanted to film most of the dialogue and discussions over the shoulder and through natural conversations. The film is very much about distorted perceptions, so we played visually with that throughout filming. There were a few shooting trips where Sean wasn’t available, so I had to pick up the camera myself. There are some scenes early on in that process I shot that were very crucial content-wise, but I’m not so happy with my rusty shooting skills. Luckily I improved over time, and Sean was also able to get back on the project when his schedule freed up.
With the film hitting SXSW, describe how you plan to further expand its accessibility to wide audiences?
We are speaking with a large number of distributors, broadcasters, and festivals. We hope to continue on the festival circuit this year, then moving onwards to a limited theatrical run, a robust educational distribution, and a wider digital/VOD distribution.
Can you talk a little about the design aspects of the film’s branding…for example, choice of font, color, and the development of its poster. How do you view the branding strategy of the film?
The title sequence and overall designer for the film is Lo Martin. She is also a long time collaborator. She designed the title sequence, poster, and DVD for BEIJING TAXI. I absolutely love her design sensibility and style. Since my trilogy of films on China is very much about a contemporary place and time, I want the design elements to represent that modern sensibility. It’s striking, impactful, fresh, modern, and full of intrigue. Maineland travels from Mainland to Maine, we naturally wanted to accentuate that play on word through our design. The opening title sequence also plays with the scholastic aspect of the film through its font and book opener like layout.
Finally, if you could describe your film in one word, what would it be?