At a time when US-China relations are increasingly hostile on all fronts, Better Angels — a film from two-time Academy Award winning director Malcolm Clarke — aims to highlight the importance of tolerance in moving toward a peaceful future. It does so by focusing on the more humane sides of both countries, mostly through the lives of good-hearted citizens, a route that has made some skeptical due to its avoidance of the countries’ less flattering angles.
“We wanted to zig while everyone else was zagging,” says Clarke when we meet at the Beijing International Film Festival in mid-April. “We tried to make the film we hadn’t seen before.”
The contrast Clarke refers to is largely in reference to the mainstream American press, whose coverage of China he says he finds “absolutely lamentable”. Clarke and the production team wanted to “explain more about China to an American audience”, he says.
“The average Chinese person understands America far better than the average American understands China,” Clark continues. “So there was a balance to try and rectify this, what I regard as a huge information deficit between America and China.”
Clarke’s approach is to spotlight ordinary citizens, or “accidental diplomats” as the film calls them. This wasn’t the original plan for the movie, he says, but nine months into filming interviews with high ranking politicians and businessmen Clarke realized he was making “an absolute guaranteed cure for insomnia”.
Better Angels director Malcolm Clarke
That’s not to say the film doesn’t also feature some heavy hitters. Sino-US experts interviewed in the film include US ambassador to China Terry Branstad, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong upon the transfer of sovereignty in 1997 Tung Chee-hwa, and New Yorker journalist and noted China writer Evan Osnos.
One expert, the controversial former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (famed for orchestrating the opening of relations between China and the US), was one of the people behind the idea for the film, says Clarke. Kissinger is also the first person to appear in the film, sharing an anecdote about his first visit to China and framing the current state of relations between the two countries.
But the embodiment of the film’s message really comes in the form of people like Memo Mata from Texas and Li Mianjun from Shandong province, both of whom begin successful cross-cultural enterprises in the other’s country. Mata does so as an American football coach in Shanghai, Li as an abacus teacher in Southern Los Angeles.
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Other stories are meant to inject nuance into people’s — largely Americans’ — understanding of the economic relationship between the US and China. One segment focuses on a Chinese factory built in the US that produces jobs in a struggling community, another on factory jobs outsourced from China to Ethiopia.
Some segments simply aim to humanize developments, one example being Bao Wangli, who left his home and pregnant wife in Yunnan to take a more lucrative job engineering a bridge in Ethiopia 8,000 miles away.
“All I really wanted to do was to show that the Chinese aren’t faceless automatons who just work their asses off,” Clarke says in reference to Bao. “They’re people, and they hurt, and they yearn for their wives and kids, and emotionally they made enormous sacrifices to raise 700 million people out of poverty.”
Bao Wangli is one of the people featured in the film
While highlighting the admirable parts of each country, the film noticeably chooses to avoid harsher realities either is home to. To the critique that leaving out things like China’s repression and imprisonment of Uighurs in Xinjiang damages the film’s authenticity and leaves it open to being interpreted as propaganda, Clarke responds indignantly.
“I have no illusions about the sins committed by this country […] I know what they do, and I know how they do it, and I’m terribly sad that they do and that they don’t see how what they do hurts them and hurts their cause,” he says.
Clarke says he knew the film would “be accused of being in the pocket of the Chinese government”, and that it has in fact already faced criticism on that front, whether in the form of accusations from “Trump trolls” on the film’s Facebook page or skepticism from Western journalists and students on US university campuses.
“I often say I’m not pro-China — I’m not, and I’m not pro-America, I’m really not,” the director says, pointing out that all of the funding for the film came from the US. “I’m pro America and China getting along because I think it’s the only common-sense reaction to super power relationships.”
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And like many films entering the Chinese market, Better Angels was forced to re-edit to make it to cinemas in the country, with eight minutes of footage cut in order to secure its release in China this coming June. Clarke admits it was a move they made both to ensure people in China could see it and to deliver economically to investors.
During the Q&A after the Beijing film screening Bill Mundell, adjunct professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and a co-producer for the film, framed the movie as a lesson for people on both sides of the Pacific about how they can become “stakeholders” in the US China relationship.
“The message of this film is really disarmingly simple,” he stated. “If we can follow the examples of those ordinary Americans and ordinary Chinese that are seeking to bridge the physical and metaphysical distance that divides us, we can transform the relationship from one where we barely tolerate each other’s differences to one where we begin to capitalize on each other’s differences.”
Better Angels aims to bridge the U.S.-China divide by focusing on every day people
Better Angels will be released theatrically in China June this year, after which Clarke says they’ll probably do a deal with a Chinese streaming service. They’ll then move to screen it theatrically in select cities in the US and aim to sell it to a streaming service there.
How much of an impact it makes on US-China relations remains to be seen, but it’s clear that such a film is a timely release.
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