Vivian Qu (director and writer), Benoît Dervaux (cinematographer), Hongyu Yang (editor)
Wen Qi, Zhou Meijun, Shi Ke, Peng Jing, Geng Le and Liu Weiwei (cast)
September 9, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival 2017), September 12, 2017 (London Film Festival)
My first screening at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival was quite the experience. This year, I focused on films directed by women of colour, and immediately chose Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White because of its teen girl lead starring in what was described as a “moody modern-day noir.”
Set in a seaside village, this Chinese film follows Mia (Wen Qi), a teen motel employee, who witnesses the sexual assault of two 12-year-old girls while she covers for Lili, the usual receptionist (Peng Jing). The story is a slow burn as it follows the crime’s aftermath from not just Mia’s perspective as the witness, but from all those involved. It’s an emotionally heavy film to watch, but it’s juxtaposed by the lightness of the cinematography, with visuals like the sun-drenched sand and crystal blue water.
The quiet inner turbulence of the film’s women was powerful to watch on screen, especially from the young Zhou Meijun who plays one of the 12-year-old victims, Xiaowen. Probably the most memorable scenes were the ones that illustrated the very different reactions of the parents, which ranged from seeking justice to sweeping it under the rug and blaming the victim. The conversation around how we talk about and approach sexual assault both socially and in our criminal justice system is evident in this film. Angels Wear White uses the reoccurring image of a statue based on Marilyn Monroe’s famous flying skirt moment from the film the The Seven Year Itch. Located at the beach as a tourist attraction, we’re given a clear view under the statue’s skirt. While the connotations are inherently sexual, it takes on a new meaning when Mia becomes obsessed with it, and when Xiaowen later uses it as a place to sleep after running away from home. The latter’s refuge under the statue symbolizes the sexuality for which she’s being punished for, while the former returns to it with curiosity.
Shi Ke as Attorney Hao is a calming presence on screen, a much needed vehicle for the viewer who wants to play an active role in the storytelling and shield the girls. She’s a firm voice of defence and exemplifies the pursuit of justice in spite of years of the system trying the grind her into apathy. While we’re used to films where the honourable lawyer is loud with righteous rage, Hao’s approach is far more mindful of the young victims’ feelings than any performative justice.
Although the questions of justice, slut shaming, and sexual violence play a huge role in the film, there’s also a conversation of the homeless and financially disenfranchised, given the decisions that some of the characters make. It’s a film filled with complicated women and fantastic performances. I hope to see more from Qu.