Plenty of Sour and Little of the Sweet: Angels Wear White


CHINA’S phenomenal economic growth in recent years has not been without its consequences. Consumerism has marched forward hand in hand with rampant pollution. Urbanisation has changed the way of life for millions of Chinese people.

Economic migration has fractured families. The whiff of corruption is never far away as is the friction caused by the clashing tectonic  plates that are State control and a desire among many civilians for greater personal freedom.

These themes, especially that of the growing distance between adults and the children of today, are expertly explored in Angels Wear White, a Chinese film directed by the impressive and brave Vivian Qu (Trap Street).

Previewing at the BFI London Film Festival, Angels Wear White is centred on two characters – a hotel worker Mia and a young girl Wen – who live by the sea in Southern China.

Standing in as night receptionist for work colleague Lily (so she can go out with her boyfriend) Mia delivers beers to the room of two young girls (one of which is Wen, one of whom is wearing a blonde wig). She then sees on the security camera the gentleman next door enter their room. Given he brought them to the hotel, she is suspicious and films the video stream on her phone.

Although we never witness anything more of this exchange, it soon transpires that the man – the godfather of Wen’s friend Xin and the local police commissioner – has gone on to rape them. A police investigation is launched.

It is shocking (the girls are barely teenagers) but Qu never really  allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the plight of Wen and Xin – and as a result feel real empathy towards them. This is because the  filming is detached – we are led to assume the rapes have taken place – as are all the characters.

Both Xin and Wen’s parents (divorced) show an indifference to the vile crimes committed against their girls. Indeed, Xin’s are quite happy to take money from the rapist (a police commissioner who we only see fleetingly).

The girls also do not seem too traumatised by what has been done to them although Wen does run away from her mother to spend time with her father. The father is underwhelmed by the girl’s presence although he shows he cares as the film unfolds.

Mia, who lives in constant  fear of being picked up by the police for not possessing an ID and of losing her job, tries to use what she has witnessed on screen for her own financial benefit. When a lawyer interviews her (probably the only character in the entire film to have a moral core), Mia will only provide information at a price.

It all backfires as Mia loses her job and ultimately is forced to pimp herself to get the money she needs to pay a local hoodlum to provide her with a false ID.

As for the police investigation, it is thwarted by a cover up, helped by three consultants who dispute the fact that the girls have been interfered with.

It is a story which does not speak well of Chinese society as Qu confirmed after the screening. She said that many children had been ‘left behind’ in the wake of China’s economic revolution and ‘not enough attention’ was being paid to their needs. In using Mia as the focal point of the film she wanted the viewer to ask themselves whether they would help or look away if they were in her shoes.

Despite police corruption being at the heart of the film, Qu seemed relaxed about any potential problems when it came to showing the film in China. ‘We worked within the law and pushed the limits,’ she said. ‘You push until you are told you have gone too far.’

The film is released in China next month. ‘The authorities have been quite supportive of the film,’ she said (note the use of the word ‘quite’).

Cinematographer Benoit Dervaux [A Kid with a Bike, 2011, Dardenne Brothers] does a splendid job in framing the film within the seaside resort. Newly weds stroll along the sea shore in herds, being photographed – the women in white (the colour white is a big theme in the film – not surprising given the film’s title – hinting at purity and the constant assault on it within current Chinese society). In one beautiful scene, Xin and Wen wander up and down a colourful dry water flume.

There is also a grotesque Marilyn Monroe statue that resides on the beach and which provides the film’s final stunning visual scene. At one stage,  Dervaux uses his camera to sweep up Marilyn’s legs to her pantied crotch. Symbolism? But of what? The corruption of innocence? The westernisation of China? Maybe a mix of them all.

Angels Wear White is a brave film from a brave director. More please Vivian Qu.

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Director: Vivian Qu
Cinematographer: Benoit Dervaux


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