Let’s retire the phrase “this is the movie we need now” from reviews and headlines. It just feeds into the shallow topicality dominating so much film criticism right now. That said, Chinese director Vivian Qu’s “Angels Wear White,” while made in Asia before the #MeToo movement began, intersects with it in intriguing ways. It also rhymes with “Revenge,” the French film about a woman avenging her rape and attempted murder that I’m reviewing in the May 10 Gay City News.
“Revenge” fits into a tradition of violent B-movies, while “Angels Wear White” feels halfway between TV crime drama and art film. Still, “Revenge” is a far more optimistic film, despite the amount of blood it spills, while “Angels,” though very discreet about violence, suggests that China devotes much more care to statues of women than the safety of real teenage girls.
“Angels Wear White” takes place in a decrepit resort town. It’s the sort of locale that should be devoted to pleasure, with a park destined to open on “Children’s Day,” but in this film it looks seedy at best. In a hotel, a middle-aged district commissioner gets two 12-year-old girls, Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xinxin (Jiang Xinyue), drunk and assaults them. Although this happens off-screen, it’s pretty clear that he commits some form of sexual abuse. Hotel clerk Mia (Wen Qi), who is a teenager herself, realizes that something sinister is going on and films the girls’ entrance to his room on her cell phone. The official turns out to be very powerful, and Mia younger and more marginal than she claims to be. Mia and Wen turn to a middle-aged female lawyer, Attorney Hao (Shi Ke), and the police for help, but they’re stuck in a situation where abusive men retain power over them.
Qu’s movie has been called a film noir, but cinematographer Benoît Dervaux’s work goes in the exact opposite direction of stereotypical chiaroscuro lighting and gloomy images. Instead, he shows dangerous situations taking place in bright sunshine and institutional lighting. The film captures the look of summer and the atmosphere of a seaside town but presents a narrative so downbeat that it verges on dystopian, mocking the idea of fun in the sun. At a press conference, reflections of light glow on the floor, getting obliterated when the results anger the attendees into coming close to violence.
Qu wrote the screenplay in addition to directing the film, and she proves to have a knack for telling multiple storylines at once. The struggles of Mia and Wen intersect, but they are not directly connected all the time, and “Angels Wear White” does an excellent job of keeping all its balls in the air. Qu shows the way that rape culture in China is intertwined with governmental power. She seems to be using the theme of sexual abuse as a way to critique the state without getting her film banned.
Reversing the usual practice, Wen Qi is actually younger than the character she portrays. I don’t know if Zhou Meijun and Jiang Xinyue are actually 12 or how much they really understand about the horrors their characters go through, but Zhou, in particular, gives a heartbreaking performance. Men are not on-screen very often in “Angels Wear White,” and when they are they are either about to commit violence or representatives of a government that’s useless at helping women. Given her characters’ ages, Qu opts to keep all the violence off-screen; when Mia is attacked, she is dragged behind bushes and we hear her scream for 20 seconds, which is more disturbing than a close-up of her bloodied face might be. She knows enough about getting beaten to tell her co-worker to press a cold soda can to a bruise to reduce its swelling.
“Angels Wear White” is Qu’s second film as a director, following the 2013 “Trap Street,” but she produced “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which takes a similar look at China’s dark underbelly. Right now, the AMC theater chain distributes big-budget genre films made in Hong Kong and mainland China, often with nationalist themes, to America’s big cities. The director Jia Zhang-ke has been perceived by Westerners as a symbol of a dissident Chinese cinema, but this is not necessarily his own intention; he recently started a film festival where all entries have to be approved by the Chinese government. (French director Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts” could only be shown there with minor cuts.) Chinese independent cinema exists, but we haven’t had many chances to see it beyond one-off festival screenings and Anthology Film Archives’ week-long runs of Wang Bing’s documentaries.
Given the similarities between the corruption Qu shows in “Angels Wear White” and the depths of misogyny that have been publicized in the US since last fall, the world’s a small place indeed. But her film should not be reduced to the cinematic equivalent of an op-ed. It expresses its politics through a command of visual style, ability to capture place, and storytelling that would work wonders for the most innocuous comedy, too.
ANGELS WEAR WHITE | Directed by Vivian Qu | KimStim | In Mandarin with English subtitles | Opens May 4 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | metrograph.com