Exposing the sordid corruption of police and government officials through their incriminating involvement in a child sexual assault case, “Angels Wear White” could give parents of young daughters a cold sweat. Chinese director-producer Vivian Qu’s depiction of the protagonists’ fates can be unflinchingly cruel at times, but the bleak tone is soothed by grace notes such as the protagonists’ fragile beauty and the desolate poetry of its seaside setting.
One of the increasingly rare mainland films to tackle social injustice without skirting around issues that would fall foul of state censorship, the film appears to stake its chances solely in the international arthouse market. The femme-centric topic and its status as the only Chinese entry to Venice’s main competition should give it a boost.
Qu, who produced Diao Yinan’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” made her own directorial debut “Trap Street” in Venice Critics’ Week. Compared to that film, “Angels” displays marked maturity in plot development, which unspools with rising complexity and tension.
Opening in a backwater seaside resort in the southern city of Xiamen, the establishing shot of the local beach zooms to the disembodied parts of a statue. An upskirt view of towering plaster thighs perched on plaster heels alludes to the film’s theme of female objectification and violation, but subversively, it’s seen through the curious eyes of female protagonist Xiaomi, AKA Mia (Wen Qi). When the statue’s identity is finally revealed in the last scenes, the irony is bitterly resonant.
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Xiaomi works as a cleaner in a love motel, but on the one night she subs for co-worker Lili (Peng Jing) at the front desk, Liu, a high-ranking district commissioner, checks in with two pre-teen girls in tow. Through surveillance TV, Xiaomi sees him force himself into their room. Instinctively, she records everything with her iPhone.
What happened that night quickly comes to light after a medical examination. The script is tactfully understated about the seedy details, and maintains a certain ambiguity over the innocence of the two girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meijun) and Xinxin (Zhang Xinyue). More shocking are their parents’ reactions: The phsyical punishment and psychological abuse Xiaowen’s divorced mother (Liu Weiwei) heaps on her own daughter in one scene are so monstrous it’s excruciating to watch. She’s internalized society’s double-standard, which assumes a woman is to blame for being “seductive” when she’s preyed on by men. Equally distasteful are Xinxin’s bourgeois parents, who are easily bought off from pressing charges.
Qu demonstrates an unsentimental and lucid understanding of the social factors that push people into selfish behavior, such as the fact that Xiaowen’s father (Geng Le) who was Commissioner Liu’s subordinate, had made his boss “godfather” of his daughter to curry favor. Things are even tougher for Xiaomi, who, as a migrant worker, is driven to take big risks to raise money for a fake ID so she can work legally. So, when Attorney Hao (Shi Ke), who fights an unhill battle to convict Liu, tries to appeal to Xiaomi as a fellow female to help vindicate the girls, her response indicates that a hardscrabble existence leaves no room for empathy.
Given the unchecked entitlement of certain government officials, the thuggish methods Liu employs to cover-up comes as no surprise but the suggestions of collusion between police, cadres and hoods are still quite bold — and though the ending is low-key, it hits like a dull pain in the stomach. Represented as a shadowy figure who can still “summon wind and rain” even if he’s locked up, Liu personifies the so-called banality of evil, and barely appears on screen.
Engaging female dynamics result in strong, convincing performances, especially as their relations eschew platitudes on sisterhood or exploitative images of victimization. Fifteen-year-old Taiwan-born, mainland-raised actress Wen Qi evinces a jaded maturity beyond her years, scuttling quietly like a mouse wary of being caught, her large, expressive eyes full of mistrust and lips pursed with determination to survive. A look at her winsome performance as a TV child star, and memorable turns as a rebellious teenager in Yang Shupeng’s “Blood of Youth” and as a flirtatious debutant in Yang Ya-che “The Bad, The Beautiful, The Corrupted” confirms her tremendous range and potential. As Xiaowen, young actress Zhou also possesses unnerving precociousness, especially her ability to express bottled up rage against the adult world while still yearning for love and attention.
As in “Trap Street,” production aesthetics in “Angels” (whose Chinese title means “Carnival”) reflect Qu’s background in Chinese independent cinema, notably the slightly washed-out texture, but Benoit Dervaux’s agile camerawork creates both a sense of uncertainty and prying intimacy through a proliferation of closeups and mid-shots. Ace Chinese editor Yang Hongyu keeps the momentum without rushing scenes of dramatic import. The laidback seaside town offers a deceptively serene veneer for the seamy things going on in the dark.