China is rarely painted in a positive light by the mainstream news media these days. It is either criticized for its failings — human rights violations, theft of American intellectual property — or, more bluntly, accused of stealing American jobs, and, in the words of our president, painted as our economic and political enemy. At times, China’s identity seems purposely framed in such a way that we as an American people can forget that we are discussing a country made up of more than 1 billion individuals and instead view it as a solitary, unified, mysterious aggressor across the sea. It is for this reason that Better Angels, the new documentary by Academy Award–winning director Malcolm Clarke and Gerrymandering producer Bill Mundell with Chinese producer Yi Han, is so important to this moment in our nation. The film takes a different approach to the conversation on U.S.-China relations. It actively makes the decision to look beyond the usual, overworked talking points to focus on a subject that isn’t actively represented in mainstream media. It tackles our countries’ relations from the eyes of those whose opinions should really matter most: their people.
When making a documentary on China, one typically would not immediately expect the place to begin would be in Middle America. Yet that is exactly where this documentary spends most of its time while on American soil. It finds its foundation in the opinions of the “ordinary” American. While the film is peppered with statements from successful economists, professors and three past secretaries of state, it is not the quotes of the highly educated few that give this documentary merit. It is the unfiltered, sometimes politically incorrect, free-flowing thoughts of the average citizen or, as the film puts it, “accidental diplomats,” that ring most true.
For an American audience, the most unusual part of this film may be the detailed look into the lives of Chinese citizens. The film helps to remove the veil of mystery by bringing us directly into China's homes. Even if you have no interest in international relations, the stories in this film provide any type of moviegoer something to connect with. What we see onscreen are human stories that provoke inspiration, admiration or, in several moments, utter heartbreak, as we experience the lives of families who have been torn apart by distance in the need to find work.
From a filmic standpoint, Better Angels has many merits. Beautiful cinematography covers the distinct landscapes of four continents. The multitude of stories told are woven together delicately, crossing national borders seamlessly as each story transitions, much in line with the message of the film. Each subject is unique, and director Clarke pulls from them the rich, honest emotion that brings both sides together in the human experience.
The only major disservice the filmmakers do their film is that they seem not to completely recognize where its strongest moments lie. The film reaches its peak about three-quarters of the way through, and where it ends does not hold up to the experiences the audience has had earlier in the film. Despite this, and some slightly cheesy yet occasionally helpful use of special effects, the doc is a strongly made film.
With this film, an American audience is forced to face a reality that may be difficult for some to accept: The U.S. and China are not as different as mainstream media would like us to believe. The Chinese are currently experiencing many of the growing pains our nation has faced over the past century. The film does not try to make excuses for China’s shortcomings in civil rights, or the crimes it has committed, past and present. Instead, it simply asks us to remember that in our relationship with China, we are dealing with people just like us, with the same goals, dreams and hopes for a better future.
Had Better Angels come out five years ago, maybe around the time its production began, this writer may not have recommended immediately running out to see it. However, in today’s political climate, it feels not only important but necessary. Better Angels provides the angle on the U.S.-China relationship that is missing from news media, and for us as informed citizens, it is essential viewing.