A new Chinese-American co-produced documentary, "Better Angels," presents another path in people-to-people level relations between China and United States despite increased tensions recently.
The 92-minute film, written and directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Malcolm Clarke ("Prisoner of Paradise") and produced by William Mundell and Han Yi, examines the proposition that America and China can benefit enormously by looking beyond their traditional rivalries to a future in which differences are respected rather than suspected, and where both sides focus on the issues that unite them, rather than those that drive them apart.
"I hope the film will shatter the myths that Americans hold about China and Chinese hold about America," said producer Mundell at the premiere held in Beijing on Saturday, which was organized by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) and attended by many Chinese and American elites, including the current American ambassador to China Terry Branstad.
Branstad, the former governor of Iowa, actually appeared in the film as one of the key interviewees among the likes of iconic political and business heavyweights in the arena of Sino-U.S. relations including three former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Madeleine Albright, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of the HKSAR, China and Chinese billionaire tycoons Wang Jianlin and Ronnie Chan, as well as economist Cheng Siwei and retired major general Qiao Liang.
But their punditry only served as a background to the intimate and sometimes heartbroken portrayal and stories of ordinary Chinese and Americans who became "accidental diplomats" enhancing civil exchanges and bonds between the two countries, including Memo Mata, a former U.S. marine from Los Fresnos, Texas, who moved to China and not only became an English teacher and football coach, but also married a Chinese woman.
The film also tells story of a Chinese teacher who helps American children learn math using an abacus. It has a segment featuring a Chinese engineer named Bao Wangli who’s on a multi-year assignment in Ethiopia to construct a bridge and can rarely communicate with his wife and newborn baby due to intermittent mobile signals. More than 60 million children in China, like Bao’s child, are growing in remote villages without parents as their parents move to cities or even overseas for work.
"If you can affect people emotionally, not intellectually, they will remember things for a very long time. That is what we tried to do with this film," said director Clarke.
To confront accusations by U.S. President Donald Trump and other politicians about how Chinese are "stealing" American jobs, the documentary shows that the jobs are not stolen but have moved to China due to low costs, and the same thing is happening for China now, as many jobs have relocated to Africa.
The film was cut from more than 800 hours of footage and has been made over five years, shot on four different continents. For Chinese producer Han Yi, the challenge was to find stories that entertain and move audiences.
"Not everyone is perfect, and no country is perfect. But we can go beyond the often heard or repeated topics and see something deeper?" Han said, "Actually American and Chinese are the same: we both want a better life and better future for our next generation."
At the beginning of the film, now 95-year-old Henry Kissinger is seen warning the audiences of China and America, "If we are to clash, it would be a disaster for the whole world." Interestingly, the title of the film draws its inspiration from the first inaugural address by former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, in an effort to reconcile the Northern and Southern states of America at that time of the Civil War.
"When I interviewed Henry Kissinger in New York, he applied the term to China and America. If we appeal to the better part of our nature, perhaps we can avoid conflicts," said director Clarke, "We thought it was the perfect title for the film."
The documentary has debuted in a limited release at the end of October in the United States. To mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations, it will hit about 2,000 Chinese screens starting January 2019, according to ARTeFact Entertainment, which produced the film.
"Americans have sensed that China is an Asian mystery. But as Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, told Henry Kissinger, ’We are not that mysterious. Just come to know us’," Clarke added, pointing out the mission of his film.