Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White is another realist, slow cinema meditation on the social troubles in China. The ideas and metaphors are potent, but the tough subject matter and the naturalistic approach make it a difficult film to like.
Mia (Wen Qi) spends her days and nights working at a beachside hotel. Business is slow as the manager awaits the busy summer season. As a result, no guest slips by unnoticed, especially not an esteemed middle-aged police commissioner booking a pair of rooms for himself and two young schoolgirls, Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xin. Wary, Mia consults the security footage and uses her phone to film the monitor as the Commissioner forces his way into the girl’s room. However, when the police investigation begins days later, she’s hesitant to come forward with this crucial piece of evidence because she fears for her job.
Angels Wear White then follows Mia, as she contemplates revealing the truth, and Wen, the more confident of the two girls, as her life is shaken to the core by this traumatic experience. Qu uses these two characters to explore the endemic misogyny in the Chinese system. Her critique is harsh but seems justified.
The image of the titular angel is first conjured in the film’s opening scene as Mia inspects a newly erected Marilyn Monroe statue. You know the image: Monroe, as seen in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, wearing a white dress as a passing subway train sends the skirt hovering around her hips and she thrills in holding back the perverted gust. It’s an iconic image and one that remains deeply significant in the portrayal of sexuality in pop culture.
Angels Wear White uses this image to ask why the symbol of the white-clad virgin is still at the heart of cultural sexuality. Though just a few years apart, Wen is chastised for looking too old and Mia for looking too young. These sexist double standards dominate the way these young women are viewed by those around them. Outside of the victims, only the lawyer (well played by Shi Ke) has any semblance of decency and such a cast of reprehensibles makes for suitably bleak viewing.
In addition to the rampant sexism, Qu also touches upon China’s class issues and the cultural malnourishment of their youth. The main reason Mia doesn’t go straight to the police with her evidence is the fact that she doesn’t have a social ID card, which could be a major problem should she need to find a new job. The film presents these cards as a symbol of acceptance and safety in society.
The other group who often aren’t gifted this golden pass? Children. In the aftermath of her assault, Wen explores the barren slides of a nearby waterpark. All signs point to it being abandoned, but, in reality, unfinished building work means it not yet opened. This monument to absent joy becomes a metaphor for China. While the country may look suitable for children, superficially at least, it’s not there yet. But Qu, too, doesn’t entirely do justice to her young characters. Xin, the second victim, is largely forgotten about, which has the effect of undermining the film’s sympathetic approach. Surely it would be right to explore her experience too?
The Monroe through-line culminates in a beautiful cinematic image at the film’s close, but it’s a kind of triumph that doesn’t usually grace the movie screen. Angels Wear White presents a victory defined by survival and a drive to gain autonomy in a culture that so desperately wants to silence and abuse women and children.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.