In “Angels Wear White,” writer-director Vivian Qu addresses sex crimes committed by powerful men in China. Centering on the assault of two schoolgirls, the film, opening Friday at the 4-Star in The City, is adequate as a crime thriller and subtly scathing as an issue drama condemning laws and attitudes that let perpetrators off the hook.
Qu (“Trap Street”) sets her story in a beach town in southern China. A statue of Marilyn Monroe — replicating the “Seven Year Itch” scene in which Marilyn’s dress blows upward — attracts boardwalk tourists and symbolizes how women and girls are objectified in this deceptively sunlit place.
Mia (Wen Qi), an undocumented teenager who cleans rooms at a local motel, is substituting at the reception desk for coworker Lily (Peng Jing). A man checks in with 12-year-old schoolgirls Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xin (Jiang Xinyue) in tow. Later, Mia witnesses, on the surveillance monitor, the man forcibly entering the girls’ room.
Qu doesn’t show what happens in the room, or more than a quick glimpse of the man. But the nature of the incident becomes clear the next day, when both girls exhibit signs of sexual assault.
In the ensuing narrative, Qu separately follows Wen and Mia, who is the only witness to what was captured on the video monitor.
Connecting their stories is Hao (Shi Ke), a crusading child-welfare attorney, who attempts to bring the perpetrator, a prominent commissioner, to justice.
But the victims are trapped by practices and mindsets that benefit high-ranking men, while making girls and women who should be able to put them in jail feel helpless or dirty.
Hao’s efforts to get the commissioner convicted are consistently thwarted.
Wen’s mother (Liu Weiwei) accuses her daughter of provoking the commissioner by dressing inappropriately.
The commissioner offers Wen’s parents money for Wen’s education in exchange for a promise not to sue him.
Mia, meanwhile, having remained silent out of fear of getting fired, agrees to provide information to Hao for cash. She needs the money to purchase a fake ID card.
Desperate for additional funds, Mia makes dark choices that enhance the movie’s thrills.
Perhaps to avoid exploitation or melodrama, Qu presents the girls’ plights somewhat dispassionately. Consequently, viewers’ sympathy for these characters develops rather slowly. But Wen and Mia indeed earn emotional investment.
Qu additionally builds tension as the girls navigate terrains hostile to their welfare.
Containing everything from authorities’ insensitive questioning of the schoolgirls to Lily’s visit to a hymen-reconstruction clinic, the film offers a thoughtful, textured and quietly furious criticism of a sexist Chinese system and society.
Cinematographer Benoit Dervaux’s use of light beautifully conveys, sometimes with images of white dresses, the ideals of purity in which people need to believe.
Qu ends the film with one such image — white, perfect and exhilarating.
Angels Wear White
Starring: Wen Qi, Zhou Meijun, Shi Ke, Peng Jing
Written and directed by: Vivian Qu
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
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