Film Review: ‘Angels Wear White’
There have been a number of reports of Chinese elementary and middle school students who have been sexually assaulted by teachers and Communist Party officials, but the infamous Hainan rape case is the most obvious analog for this based-on-a-true-story film.
When two young girls are assaulted by a local regime official, the police immediately circle the wagons—protecting the predator, exactly as they did in Hainan. It is not just the girls’ reputations that are at risk. Their very lives will be in danger throughout Vivian Qu’s way-beyond-zeitgeisty “Angels Wear White,” which opens May 4 in New York.
The official in question took 11- or 12-ish Wen and her friend Xin (his goddaughter) out for a night of karaoke, after which he checked them into a quiet seasonal hotel, plied them with beer, and then forced his way into their room, over their objections. That last part was captured on the hotel’s surveillance camera, but the footage is mysteriously missing—not that the cops want to find it.
Of course, the owner hopes to avoid trouble with the authorities, and 15-year-old runaway Xiaomi (“Mia”) wants to avoid trouble with her boss. Since she does not have a valid residency permit, she is not working there legally. Yet, she was the one who checked in the Party predator and the girls, covering for her co-worker Lily, who was off partying with her thuggish boyfriend.
Both girls find themselves on the receiving end of the cops’ victim-blaming, but it is far worse for Wen, the economically disadvantaged product of a broken home. However, she gets one break when Attorney Hao (Shi Ke), possibly the town’s only honest lawyer, takes her on as a client.
This is an absolutely searing film that will definitely leave a mark on anyone who sees it. The lazy critical response will merely lump it in with the general hashtag trend, but it cuts much deeper than that. Through a semi-fictional lens, Qu exposes corruption in the Chinese regime that is so pervasive and rotten, it has contaminated all pillars of society.
This is an impassioned indictment of the Hainan authorities and every other regime official who abused his power, as well as the grafters and enablers colluding with them. Yet, on-screen, it still works brilliantly as a completely absorbing drama.
Qu’s young cast is absolutely remarkable, starting with the astonishingly forceful and utterly natural Wen Qi (also known as Vicky Chen) as Mia. She is not always the most sympathetic teenager in the world, but it makes her acutely and messily human. Likewise, frightfully young-looking Zhou Meijun’s performance as Wen is absolutely harrowing and profoundly heartbreaking.
They are the leads and their work defines the film, but it would be a gross injustice to overlook Peng Jing’s portrayal of Lily. Her pseudo-mentoring of Mia represents an intriguing relationship that gives the film even greater depth. She too will also be the victim of men’s predatory violence, but her low-key, more resigned response hits the audience just as hard.
This narrative belongs to the young women and the girls, but Geng Le adds further pathos as Meng Tao, Wen’s deadbeat father, who starts to step up for her because somebody has to.
Qu weaves together a plethora of subplots with admirable dexterity and maintains an atmosphere of nearly suffocating tension. “Trap Street” was an impressive feature directorial debut, but “Angels” is a stunningly bold and staggeringly honest cinematic statement. This film will make you angry and deeply sad, but the fresh talent it showcases also generates excitement for their future promise.
Very highly recommended for anyone who considers film an art form or a valid means of social criticism.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com