Writer/director Vivian Qu creates a sparse but powerful narrative with Angels Wear White, a film that focuses on an almost entirely female cast to explore the rape of two young girls in a small Chinese seaside town. (EML: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson
“Mia” (Vicky Chen) is working front desk at a hotel when a man checks in with two young girls. Later that night, Mia hears a noise upstairs and goes to check the security footage. She sees the man trying to force his way into the girls’ room while the girls try to push him out. Thinking quickly, Mia pulls out her cellphone to record the security footage. She watches as the man overpowers the young girls and forces his way into the room. Still, all Mia does is record the footage, she does nothing to intervene.
The next day, the two girls are reprimanded for being late to school. One of the girls, “Wen” (Zhou Meijun) is suffering from abdominal pain, so her friend “Xin” (Xinyue Jiang) gives her a pill she said she got from an older girl for her “monthly cramps.” Wen is clearly seen by her teachers as a troublemaker, which is only perpetuated when she gets into a fight with a boy at school over a photo he posted. This fight leads to the discovery of heavy bruising on Wen’s inner thighs.
Later, both girls are taken to the doctor for exams. It’s revealed that Xin told her mother what happened to them, but made it seem like it was all Wen’s idea. At the doctor’s office, Wen’s mother (Weiwei Liu) gets into a fight with an unseen man (possibly Wen’s father?) blaming him for the assault.
Back at the hotel, the police arrive to question Mia about what she remembers from the previous night. Mia holds her tongue, claiming that she witnessed nothing suspicious that evening or later the next day when she cleaned the room. It turns out that Mia doesn’t have an ID to authorize her to work at the hotel, which is why she’s so hesitant to talk to the police. Also, she was only on the shift that evening to cover for her friend & co-worker.
Wen's mother hires a lawyer, "Lily" (Peng Jiang) to help press charges against the man who attacked her daughter. However, Lily & Wen's mother both struggle to see eye to eye, especially as it becomes clear that proving the assault will be incredibly difficult. Still, Lily is determined to find out the truth and help Wen, so she begins her own investigation.
Meanwhile, Wen’s mother blames Wen for the assault, accusing her of wearing the wrong clothes & having the wrong hairstyle. In a heart-wrenching scene, Wen’s mother tosses the girl’s clothes from her closet as Wen sobs, trying to gather them up. Then, Wen’s mother pulls Wen into the bathroom where she chops off all of her daughter’s hair, leaving her with a boy-like cut. Later that night, Wen runs away, leaving red nail polish in the sink to make it look like blood.
Angels Wear White is a film punctuated by long sequences of silence, lacking almost any score or soundtrack throughout. With sparse and often expository dialogue, writer/director Vivian Qu seems more focused on telling a visual narrative than an auditory one. While at times this style can be powerful, it also makes the film drag a bit as there are extended sequences that seem to be more focused on the art then on moving the story forward.
Despite the pacing, strong acting performances from both Chen & Zhou as well as their adult co-stars, help to keep the audience engaged and the sparsity of the soundtrack really helps to enhance the emptiness and hollowness at the film’s core. Without dialogue to rely on, the actors really have to focus on their facial expressions to make their character’s thoughts and intentions clear. In this, the cast excels, and it’s often the moments between the dialogue where the characters feel most authentic.
As a director, Qu’s shot vocabulary is interesting and her choices deliberate, making it clear that, for Qu, female perspective is key. For example, Qu opens the film with Mia taking photos up the skirt of a large statue of a woman near the sea. Later, Wen takes refuge under the statue after running away from home. For Mia, this statue is a symbol of her burgeoning sexuality. For Wen, the statue symbolizes a maternal figure, shelter from the life that is falling apart around her.
But what stands out most in Qu’s Angels Wear White is the minimal use of male characters and the distance Qu puts between the audience and those male characters that are part of the narrative. For instance, when Mia first meets the man at the hotel who will later be identified as Commissioner Liu and the accused rapist, the shot focuses entirely on Mia, never showing the man’s face. Later, when Mia witnesses the assault, the shot remains wide, never closing in to really give the audience a good look at the man’s face. Similarly, at the doctor’s office, Wen’s mother gets into a shouting match with a man who is, as described by her, Wen’s father. However, that man is never shown on camera.
Qu’s choice to really close in on the female characters while giving the male characters as little screen time (if any) as possible, enhances the point that Angels Wear White is trying to make about female sexuality and sexual assault. This is Wen’s story. This is Mia’s story. This is a women’s story.
© Eliana M. Levenson (5/6/18) FF2 Media
Top Photo: “Wen” (Zhou Meijun) after running away, arrives outside her father's house in the middle of the night, only to find that the gate is locked.
Middle Photo: "Mia" played by actress Vicky Chen.
Bottom Photo: Writer/Director Vivian Qu has a conversation on set with the cinematographer, Benoit Dervaux.
Photo Credits: Shuo Feng
Yup! There are plenty of moments where Angels Wear White passes the Bechdel-Wallace test!
For example, there’s a scene where Wen’s mother is discussing the case with a female caseworker, and they have a back and forth about the mother’s whereabouts on the night in question. This back and forth at the top of the scene is intensified by the fact that it is a conversation between two women, one feels judged for her parenting as a mother and the other just wants to get answers so that they can make an arrest.