Director Vivian Qu exposes control, coercion and casual violence towards women in modern China in the surprising drama Angels Wear White.
Heartbreak Hotelby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Chinese screenwriter and director Vivian Qu has set her critique of institutionalised violence against women in a small southern China seaside resort. On the beach a surreal giant polystyrene statue stands, so big that we can only see its high-heeled feet. Between the twin towers of its legs, tourists are taking upskirt shots of its knickers. Later it’s revealed as the iconic Marilyn Monroe wind-blow white skirt image from The Seven Year Itch. It exemplifies the objectification of women that’s endemic in this society and young Mia (Wen Qi) quietly observes.
In the Warmness love hotel where she’s a dogsbody, a middle-aged man checks in one night with two 12-year-old schoolgirls in their uniforms (Zhou Meijun and Zhang Xinyue, both excellent). Mia, who is covering for the vain receptionist (Peng Jing), who is with her coercive boyfriend, records the security video of the man forcing a way into their room. What happens that night sets off a chain of events that involve child abuse by someone in authority, corruption and cover-up. There follows a range of misogyny and control of women that’s taken for granted that includes rape, violence, coercion, prostitution and painful hymen reconstruction. “I don’t want to be reborn as a woman,” one young woman laments as life closes in.
An honest and concerned female lawyer (Shi Ke) seems to be the only person seeking to convict the guilty man, the local Commissioner Liu, but Mia, the only witness willing to speak, is vulnerable because she has no ID card and thus no legal existence. Liu offers to buy off the parents of the two girls with bribes and in other ways he misuses his influence on the owner of the hotel and on the doctors who examine the girls to make sure no evidence comes to light.
Using the powerful symbol of the Monroe edifice throughout the film, and an apparently non-threatening seaside location, Qu has made a harsh feminist critique of present-day. on-the-surface-modern China’s endemic attitudes towards women. Mia, still only 16, turns out to be a resourceful heroine, who encouragingly acts bravely to take back some control of her life.
Angels Wear White screens at the 61st BFI London Fiom Festival on 12, 13 and 14 October 2017.