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With China’s ascendance, there has been an exponential surge of study-abroad students — Chinese students now account for over one-third to one-half of international secondary school students. Many are children of the new Chinese wealthy elite, whose parents found success in China’s economic rise of the last decades.
Filmed over three years in China and the U.S., MAINELAND is a multi-layered coming-of-age tale that follows two affluent and cosmopolitan teenagers as they settle into a boarding school in blue-collar rural Maine. Part of the enormous wave of “parachute students” from China 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. In one sleepy Maine town, worlds collide as students fresh from China learn to navigate the muddy waters of this microcosmic global village.
The journey begins with illuminating interviews and admission panel reviews in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. The admissions officer interviews a colorful variety of students. Stella and Harry, our main protagonists, are accepted for the Fall 2012 semester at Fryeburg Academy, Maine, along with a gregarious cast of characters who weave throughout the film. Stella and Harry’s family and school life in China stands in contrast to their new lives in Maine. For three years, the film observes their normal teenage malaise, angst and frivolity, and their very different attempts at adapting to an American high school culture and education as they transition from a metropolitan Chinese to a rural American lifestyle.
Stella is outgoing and boisterous. Her American dream is of cute boys and a High School Musical–style school experience. Her parents expect her to take over the family manufacturing enterprise – but she wants to teach. Just before arriving in Maine, the life she knew shattered. Her parents divorced. Her mansion in Shanghai was emptied. Stella dives head first into her new social life in America. In China, dating is not allowed in high school; in America, Stella has many rotating boyfriends. She becomes a cheerleader and performs seductive dances during talent shows. Her mother is appalled listening to Stella’s stories back home.
Harry is reflective and philosophical. He seeks a Western-style schooling that encourages critical thinking. Like many Chinese boys his age, he has a videogame habit. Harry’s family urges him to retain traditional Chinese values. In a class in Maine, he researches the Tiananmen Square Massacre for the first time, and his findings enlighten him about both China and America.
Through lyrical cinematography that transports us from China to the U.S., MAINELAND captures a new crop of future Chinese elites as they try to find their place between the collectivist society they come from and the individualist culture they come to embrace. As Stella and Harry’s fuzzy visions of the American dream slowly gain more clarity, they ruminate on their experiences of alienation, culture clash, and personal identity, sharing new understandings and poignant discourses on home and country.