In the opening frames of Miao Wang’s “Maineland,” you are met with the bright lights of China. Most immediately, these are the vivid pastels of the cityscapes that are particularly luminescent set against the night sky, but as Wang’s film comes into focus, the description could apply as well to the young pupils she finds completing their applications for boarding school, which will likely not only determine their high school experience, but also well beyond. As she finds Stella, the daughter of a self-made businessman who has aspirations of becoming a teacher, and Harry, the more ambivalent son who carries the weight of three generations of his family on his shoulders as its lone grandson, the filmmaker wades into a fascinating story regarding legacy in modern China where a sense of familial obligation is being reshaped by globalization where children feel more free to determine their own fate.
But what makes Wang’s second feature, part of a planned trilogy examining China’s place in the contemporary world order, so compelling is that the boarding school Stella and Harry apply to is not in China, but rather the Fryeburg Academy in Maine, a 220-year-old institution that’s desperate for students from abroad after a downturn domestically. For two school years – and then some – Wang followed Stella and Harry as they get acclimated to America and adjust their expectations of what their futures might be like, allowing audiences to see how they are affected by cultural differences as well as the changes in their own attitudes as they grow up. Discovering fried dough at the county fair isn’t all that far removed from the Chinese creullers they enjoyed back home, there are some things that remain the same, but as you see Stella and Harry frequently headed to the Long River Restaurant, the lone Chinese restaurant in town, they grapple with what traditions they’ll hold onto while becoming individuals, the full glory of flourishing in this time captured by the beautiful camerawork of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Listen Up Phillip,” “Heaven Knows What”).
Just a day after winning the prize for Excellence in Observational Cinema from the jury at SXSW where it premiered, Wang spoke about how a screening of her debut “Beijing Taxi” inadvertently planted the seed for her second feature, the challenge of filming in high school and her ongoing collaboration with Williams.
How did the film come about?
This trilogy [I’m working on] is really looking at China’s rise and also how it’s impacted by the West. I started [“Maineland”] in 2011 after I finished “Beijing Taxi,” [which was] a film more focused on the working class and the changes they were going through in China [by] looking at the Olympics and that outward presentation of China to the West. We have an idea for the next project right now and just starting to develop it and do more research, but it’s going to be looking at China’s sexual revolution. But with “Maineland,” I wanted to [show] the middle class, but shift to a different focus [of] education. [I was inspired by] my personal experience of going abroad and coming here [when I was] 12 with my parents, so it was quite different, but there were all the different elements combined, which is how the project got started.
This must’ve been difficult to figure out who was going to Fryeburg before they got there. How did you figure it out?
I was doing some research for a while, just speaking to students who were in China. But it was really hard to figure out if they were going to make it anywhere because everybody wants to go somewhere and a lot of times, they don’t actually get accepted. By coincidence, I had a screening of “Beijing Taxi” at Fryeburg Academy in Maine and I didn’t know anything about the school at the time, but they invited me to screen there and when I showed up, I just saw all these Chinese students. It’s in this very remote area in Maine and it just seemed so fascinating [how] these kids ended up there of all places. I reached out to the school administration and it turned out that the admissions director goes to China twice a year to recruit and interview, so I thought well, if I enter this way, through the school, and follow them through the interviews with the students, then they could may be let me know which kids they accept. Then I could follow up because it would still be a few months and I could still capture some of their school experience in China and also [time with their] family.
The admissions interviews, which you see in the beginning of the film, were the first things we shot and then from that group of about 40 kids who were interviewed for that year, about 13 or 14 were accepted and I actually started with four or five kids, but Stella and Harry were really interesting kids to me right off the bat. Stella just seemed very bubbly and open and had potential to be more emotional and expressive and Harry had all these very interesting thoughts about critical thinking, but also just the way he was talking I felt like was very thoughtful and also represented elements of more traditional Chinese culture.
You travel back and forth after those initial visits. Was this logistically challenging?
Yes, it definitely was. We ended up taking 18 to 20 trips to Maine and then I was in China at least five times because we went back to film the kids and the families before they left and a couple [other] times when they returned to China, so it was tricky to schedule. I was also traveling a lot with some work projects, so it was not easy. There was one particular trip that was definitely challenging because I had planned to go right before this big snowstorm and Sean [Price Williams, the cinematographer] couldn’t make it, so I had to scramble to find someone to come with me that morning for the five days, and it ended up being a really important trip because we filmed a lot of scenes there. Filming in the school has a whole other set of challenges – high school kids and cliques of people and people that become friends and not friends.
Could you talk about your collaboration with Sean Price Williams? The visual style is immediately striking.
We worked on “Beijing Taxi” together and a number of shorts, so he’s a longtime collaborator and I love working with him. I’m very particular about cinematography and really there’s just a couple people that I work with, so when Sean’s not available, sometimes I’ll have one other person, and actually with this film, I shot segments of it myself because I would go to Maine fairly often, especially in the first couple years. But we have a very organic way of working since we’ve known each other for quite a while. We went to China for the first time in 2007, and a lot of times we have just a very shared sense of the films we like and looks we like, so I trust Sean’s eyes and what he sees andbecause I’m recording audio pretty much all the time when he’s filming, we’ll just look at each other to acknowledge certain things that we want to film. A lot of times we don’t even need to verbally discuss things.
What’s the SXSW experience been like for you?
It’s been great. We had really great audience responses and to win the award was really exciting. I also had my family here and the team, so it’s been really fun, eating barbecue whenever we can or starving the rest of the time. [laughs] It’s been really fun.
“Maineland” opens on March 16th in New York at the AMC Empire 25.