Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review: Better Angels

The home in Muscatine, Iowa that Xi Jinping stayed in back in 1985
This evening I got to watch a preview of a documentary called Better Angels by two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke.

It's a strange title for a film about the relationship between the United States and China, but it's taken from a quote that Henry Kissinger says at the beginning, how better angels will make our future better.

So aside from the big names like Kissinger, former secretaries of state James Baker and Madeleine Albright, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and even former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the documentary follows different, ordinary people on how the other country has affected them.

A picture of Xi (far right) in front of that Muscatine home
One is a teacher from Texas who goes to China to teach English and American football and is grateful for the opportunity to not only make money to support his family, but also learn more about the culture; another is a blind man who travels around the world and when he's in the US he wants to go to Muscatine, Iowa to visit the house that Chinese President Xi Jinping stayed in in 1985. It turns out another Chinese man bought the home and turns it into a "Friendship House".

There are sympathetic portraits of Chinese who oversee factories in the US and Ethiopia, and how they hardly get to visit their families, and how some Americans employed in these Chinese factories are so thrilled to have a job following the financial crisis in 2009.

One neat scene is watching a Chinese man showing American kids how to use an abacus and how it stimulates their interest in math. After a few lessons they turn into human calculators.

A teacher appreciates his life in China with his Chinese wife
The stories don't necessarily weave together nicely, but they each show a nuanced side of the Chinese or Americans. However, there are some heavy weights like Wanda's Wang Jianlin, who's filmed singing and the audience in the ballroom is cheering him on... this was obviously before the company got into trouble with the central government...

Clarke was at our screening and afterwards he explained the film took over three years to make and they had to re-edit the film following Donald Trump's election win. The British director also said he got all the big name people he wanted mostly because he would drop names of other people in there and so they didn't want to miss out in being in the documentary.

He's currently showing it to small audiences here and there, and there are plans to show Better Angels at the Asia Society in Hong Kong (maybe because chairman Ronnie Chan gets his say in the film?).

British director Malcolm Clarke
Clarke's strategy is to have a wider release in the US before showing it in China, where he had to get layers of approval; but because the film is practically positive about China -- and Xi -- that it got the green light. And Clarke is keen on making more films about the country because he finds it so fascinating -- good and bad.

Better Angels isn't for everyone, but for those interested in learning a bit more about China, this gives a more intimate view of how it impacts people at a grassroots level.

1 comment:

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