We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the sexual abuse of women and girls, although frankly, for a lot of us (mainly women and girls), the current batch of news stories are really nothing new. No, we didn’t know the details about every particular case, but the knowledge that powerful men may abuse their power in sexual ways, and that the victims of such abuse are usually female, is just one of the realities of being female today.
It’s difficult to have a discussion about any real case of sexual abuse, in part because of natural squeamishness and in part because such discussions often devolve into the equivalent of a shouting match, where no communication takes place because everyone is already convinced they are right. Fictional treatments can serve as a way to open discussions on difficult topics because no one is personally involved in the situation, and thus there’s a better chance they will be open to hearing from people whose views are different from their own.
Mia (Vicky Chen, a.k.a. Qui Wen) is a fifteen-year-old girl working as a cleaner and general dogsbody at a seaside hotel. She doesn’t have the correct residence papers yet, so has to walk on tenterhooks around her boss (independent of the fact that he’s a bully with a quick temper). One night she subs for an older woman, Lily (Jing Peng), the desk clerk, and sees something alarming—two young girls pulled kicking and screaming into the hotel room of an older man. Not surprisingly, both girls are raped, but evidence of the type you could take to court is scarce on the ground: the police are informed that the security tapes have been erased and that there are no witnesses. The real story is that the rapist is a local police official and everyone’s main desire is for the whole thing to just go away.
Everyone, that is, except a very persistent attorney, Mrs. Hao (Ke Shi). She returns multiple times to interview Mia, who not very convincingly lies about her age and then demands money to tell what she knows. Meanwhile, the victims are not getting much sympathy from anyone—instead, they are attacked and punished, as the victims of sexual assaults often are. Their families also stand to lose if they don’t just agree that the incident never happened, with one girl’s father threatened with the loss of his job if he doesn’t agree not to pursue the case “outside official channels.” The official channels, of course, are totally corrupt and dedicated to protecting the rapist, but the wild card in the deck is Mia—if she decides to step forward, the whole false structure protecting the rapist could collapse like a cheap tent in a wind storm.
Angels Wear White is a mostly straightforward film that includes some surreal embellishments that make it more than just another thriller. A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in the subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch towers over the beachfront, for instance, and the many shots of wedding parties in odd poses (including a woman riding a horse, sidesaddle, in a full-length white dress) emphasize the unreal aspects common to any resort town, where you go to escape real life. However, not everyone has that privilege, and the question of whether the artificial façade of civic virtue will prevail over truthtelling about a very serious crime is the key question of this film.
This may be the absolutely perfect moment for the KimStim/Icarus Films DVD release of Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and will also be shown at the BFI London Film Festival. The story touches on a timely topic, which may be a useful hook to get people who usually don’t watch Chinese-language films to give this one a go. What they will find is a fast-paced, beautifully-shot thriller set in contemporary China, and a film that would be well worth seeing even if the subject matter were not so timely. | Sarah Boslaugh
Angels Wear White is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films. The only extra on the disc is the trailer.