Culture

This film hopes to change how Americans view China

Nov 02, 2018

How do Chinese people feel about America? And what do Americans really think about Chinese people? A new documentary by a two-time Oscar-winning director seeks to find the answer—and break our assumptions about each country.

Better Angels opens in the United States today and follows a group of Chinese and Americans who are building bridges between the two countries. Most of them didn’t set out to become cultural ambassadors, but they’ve managed to do so in their own ways.

Memo Mata, a teacher from Texas, coaches American football in Shanghai. Li Mianjun, a Shandong native and mathematician, teaches kids in South LA how to use the abacus. Chen Lijun was anti-American until he tasted midwestern hospitality on a visit to friends in Iowa.

Memo Mata coaches American football in Shanghai.
Memo Mata coaches American football in Shanghai. / Photo: Better Angels

The director, Malcolm Clarke, hopes the documentary can present a more balanced view of China to American audiences, and vice versa, amid rancor over a trade war between both countries.

“The Chinese understand more about the U.S. than the Americans understand China,” Clarke says, “thanks to pop culture, movies, songs, TV shows, journalism.”

Clarke wanted to do the same for China by bringing personal stories from the country to American viewers.

One of them is Bao Wangli, a young Chinese engineer in Ethiopia.

Bao Wangli works as an engineer in Ethiopia.
Bao Wangli works as an engineer in Ethiopia. / Photo: Better Angels

Originally from a small village in Yunnan province, Bao’s family worked hard to fund his college education so that he could leave the village.

That journey took him to the Nile, where he is now building a bridge in a remote part of Africa.

“We see the price people pay,” Clarke says. “Many young, newly educated Chinese men and women spend years away from their loved ones.”

The film crew also went to a Chinese-owned factory in Wilcox County, Alabama. The county is the fourth poorest in the United States, and workers there were thrilled to finally have a steady job.

A supervisor instructs workers at a Chinese-owned factory in Wilcox County, Alabama.
A supervisor instructs workers at a Chinese-owned factory in Wilcox County, Alabama. / Photo: Better Angels

“At first, you think the Chinese are bossy or rude,” says one employee, Laura Lewis, “but after you joke around with them and realize they have a family, too, and that they are not just work, work, work, they actually care about things, too, it becomes a different relationship.”

Clarke stresses that the project did not have any Chinese government influence and was financed by Canada and the United States.

“It’s hugely important to have the film play to Chinese and American audiences,” he says. “It’ll bring them together and see the good of each other.”

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.