Angels Wear White (Jia nian hua)

China (2017) Dir. Vivian Qu

The #MeToo movement might have gained plenty of traction over the past year in the West but there is still plenty of work to be done across all continents to give their woman a much needed voice. Presenting a compelling argument for China to join the cause is Vivian Qu with this harrowing tale of male corruption and child abuse.

Mia (Vicky Chen) is a teenage runaway working illegally at a love motel in a seaside town. While covering for regular receptionist Lily (Jing Peng) on the front desk as she sneaks off to see her boyfriend, Mia checks in police Commissioner Liu (Coo Yunqing) and two prepubescent schoolgirls, his goddaughter Xin (Zhang Xinyue) and her friend Wen (Zhou Meijun) into two rooms.

The next day the girls are taken the police as victims of sexual assault which Mia knew about but kept quiet to save her job while protecting Lily and the motel. Only the girls’ lawyer Attorney Hao (Shi Ke) manages to prise some information out of Mia in return for money to buy a fake ID while the police use their influence to cover up the incident. But for Wen, the drama is far from over.

It is hard to single out the most shocking development in this film, such is the litany of unsettling and unconscionable behaviour Vivian Qu details in her second feature film as a writer-director. Angels Wear White is as much a relevant and provocative socio-political statement as it is a rallying cry for the female voice in cinema to be heard. Maybe the irony is that a male director wouldn’t have the guts or insight to make a film like this but not all men are bad.

Unlike the majority of men here, typifying the arrogance of male privilege in a society that hasn’t progressed beyond its archaic attitudes. Double standards are an integral element of the narrative, some blatant, others more subtle, like a towering statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from The Seven Year Itch that stands on the beach – the embodiment of female sexuality and the ultimate symbol of objectification.

Simply put, Qu is exploiting the age old dilemma of women being there solely to satisfy their men but not to enjoy any sexual gratification of their own or be deemed tainted and unsuitable for marriage, bringing shame to their families. If you are thinking “but we are talking about two young girls here?” this is one of the shocking things mentioned earlier.

Wen’s mother (Liu Weiwei) offers the oddest reaction, slapping her daughter hard in the face, cutting her long hair and throwing out her entire wardrobe of dresses to make her less tempting to men. There is a twisted irony that the one person who does support Wen is her supposed deadbeat father (Geng Le), the only real sympathetic male in the film, who risks pressure and threats from the police in sticking by his daughter.

Xin’s parents on the other hand are happy to accept Liu paying for their daughter’s fees at a top school to drop the case because they are only thinking of Xin, and anyway, Liu would only serve a short time in jail if convicted and it would all be forgotten so why bother? Fortunately for Wen, justice is more important to her father than money.

Qu really twists the knife in here, shaming this idea that a female victim’s word is of little worth compared to the accused male in the eyes of the authorities, which the strict Chinese censors couldn’t be happy with. Right to the end, everything is done to discredit the girls and Mia too, who chose to blackmail Liu with the footage from the hotel to get enough money for her ID, incurring violent warnings to keep schtum.

The narrative that a woman’s worth is in her compliance and purity – Lily tells 15 year-old Mia that some men would pay a fortune for her virginity, then has surgery to repair her own hymen before returning home – is not a new one but in Qu’s hands, it isn’t explored like a pitying whinge.  She uses a very raw and sadly very real situation to highlight this issue, handling it with sensitivity and care in not making it too exploitative for the kids but doesn’t hold back in making them sympathetic for the right reasons.

Most telling is how the only lawyer to take on the case happens to be female, and luckily Hao is a tenacious and savvy one, suffering her own indignation at the hands of the male police when she pushes too far. Summing up not just her role but the tragedy of this entire situation is one simple exchange – asked by a senior officer why, after 15 years Hao still does “these kinds of cases”, she replies “because there are too many of these kinds of cases”.

She Ki brings the right amount of indomitable spirit and empathy as Hao, much needed in the case of Wen, an incredibly heartbreaking turn from newcomer Zhou Meijun. Barely older then Zhou at just 14 years-old, Vicky Chen portrays arguably the most complex character in Mai, a street tough kid caught in a struggle between her sense of justice and self preservation.

Vivian Qu directs with a unfussy simplicity that allows each horrifying moment to sink in and get beneath our skin, but affords herself the occasional flight of artistic fancy in the beguiling way the Marilyn statue is filmed by cinematographer Benoît Dervaux and in the juxtaposition of the sunny beaches with the oppressive mood of the venal activities happening a few feet away.

That a film like Angels Wear White needs to made makes it more uncomfortable to watch but this necessity gives it its power and galvanizing credence. The urgency behind its shameful subject makes the challenge of watching it dispassionately almost impossible, revealing its value as a vital piece of cinema.