Angels Wear White (Jia nianhua) (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Lux Chen
Produced by Sean Chen, Alain de la Mata, and Hervé Pennequin; written and directed by Vivian Qu; cinematography by Benoît Dervaux; edited by Hongyu Yang; music by Zi Wen; art direction by Shaoying Peng; costume design by Tao Wang; makeup by Lina Tong; starring Qi Wen, Meijun Zhou, Ke Shi, Le Geng, Weiwei Liu, Jing Peng, Yuexin Wang, Mengnan Li, and Xinyue Jiang. Color, with Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles, 107 min. A KimStim release.
No angel treads the ground of Angels Wear White, in which virginal white dresses never protect anyone from outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows. A breakthrough in Chinese cinema, Vivian Qu’s courageous and sober film confronts the unspeakable crime of the sexual assault of children. Furthermore, the crime becomes the backdrop of a cruel coming-of-age story in which girls are coerced into a femininity of objectification and victimization (the original Chinese title “jia nianhua” means “prime of life”).
A middle-aged man brings two preteen girls to a hotel on a beach resort and forces his way into their room at night. Mia (Qi Wen), a teenage maid at the hotel, is the only witness, but, as an undocumented migrant worker, she is as defenseless as the victims. The film neither depicts the assault directly nor reveals the face of the rapist, who turns out to be a municipal business commissioner. Instead, it adopts the perspective of the observer Mia and focuses on the aftermath of the event. From the assailant to the hotel owner, from the local police to provincial medical experts, everyone is preoccupied with covering up, damage control, victim blaming, and obstruction of justice, trapping the victims in a vicious circle that is no less traumatizing than the actual assault.
Inside this web of corruption, women and girls form a community of suffering. The film treats the rape not as an isolated case, but rather as an example of the injustice and exploitation suffered by women of all ages and social classes behind the glossy veneer of seaside attractions, happy tourists, new couples taking romantic pictures on the beach, and a sparkling amusement park that is completed too late for the girls to enjoy (the original Chinese title could also mean “carnival”). The victim Wen (Meijun Zhou) grows up in a broken family, shuffling between a mother (Weiwei Liu) who spends her life smoking in bed, and a father (Le Geng) who lives in a makeshift dormitory at the construction site where he works. Mia belongs to the social sector deserted by China’s economic boom. Without an identity in China’s household registration system (almost always the result of her parents’ desire for a future son because of China’s one-child policy), she fights tooth and nail to survive in this coastal city because, in her own words, “it’s warm here. Even a beggar could have a good night’s sleep.” Lily (Jing Peng), Mia’s co-worker and role model, prides herself on her meticulous makeup and flirtation skills, but her feminine charm only makes her more desirable prey for her small-time pimp boyfriend Jian (Yuexin Wang) and his “clients.”
Suffering women are an archetype in Chinese cinema. From the leftist silent films of 1930s Shanghai (Goddess [Wu Yonggang, 1934], Daybreak [Sun Yu, 1933]) to the fifth-generation films of the 1980s and 1990s (Yellow Earth [Chen Kaige, 1985], Ju Dou [Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang, 1990]), battered, oppressed, sexually and economically exploited women not only serve as iconic victims of historical violence, but also embody the historical traumas of the nation. Film scholar Miriam Hansen notes of golden-age Shanghai cinema, “Female protagonists serve as the focus of social injustice and oppression; rape, thwarted romantic love, rejection, sacrifice, prostitution function as metaphors of a civilization in crisis.” In recent and mostly male-centered independent films (Unknown Pleasures [Jia Zhangke, 2002], The Orphan of Anyang [Wang Chao, 2001]), this archetype often devolves into the less sophisticated and more stereotypical figure of the fallen woman, usually in the form of sex workers or mistresses kept by powerful men, who embody the moral corruption and greedy consumerism plaguing the society. No longer the heroine of a gendered national allegory, the fallen woman is usually on the margin of the narrative and deprived of her viewpoint. Angels adopts the gritty, documentary-style realism of Chinese independent cinema, using sharp, handheld images to depict the daily struggle of the underclass, but refuses to take women’s fall from grace for granted. By telling the story from the women’s perspectives, the film humanizes the faceless figure of the fallen woman and confronts the role of patriarchy and social corruption in her victimization.
Angels is abundant with symbols of femininity that equate womanhood with the loss of innocence. Wen’s mother has internalized so much misogyny and self-loathing that she reacts to the assault by tearing apart Wen’s “shady” dresses and forcibly cutting her hair short. Wen holds onto her pet goldfish and hides in an amusement park with her father, but that idyllic site fails to shelter them from the threats of the police. Lily gradually loses her looks and appears bruised, drunk, and in pain. After a backstreet abortion, she laments, “I will never be a woman in my next life.” Patriarchal society exploits feminine innocence and stigmatizes women for the loss of that innocence. Along this treacherous journey to womanhood, vulnerable Wen, desolate Mia, exploited Lily, and the disillusioned mother of Wen seem to constitute the inescapable course of a woman’s lifespan. For Wen and Mia, the film is a cruel coming-of-age story in which they are coerced into this victimized femininity through sexual assault, economic exploitation, malignant gazes, and vicious threats. The coercion culminates visually when, from Wen’s visual perspective, we see three expert doctors gazing between her open legs, signifying the assault of a corrupt state power.
Angels challenges this pattern of victimization and repetition by means of the character of Mia, who, in her attempt to “take the matter into her own hands,” steers the film toward neo-noir. In recent years, more and more Chinese filmmakers rework the tropes of film noir to articulate discontent with life and to reveal the humanitarian crises amid China’s uneven development. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013) is inspired by four devastating true events that drive disenfranchised figures to violence and/or self-destruction. Both Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014), a Vivian Qu production awarded the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear Award in 2014, and The Looming Storm (Dong Yue, 2017) set cold-blooded serial murders against the decline of state-owned industry and the radical social transformation at the turn of the twenty-first century and, in the manner of classic film noirs, project broader social and cultural anxieties onto masculine anxiety. Like the desperate characters in those films, Mia attains agency only in her tentative dealings with the prosecutor, the assailant, and local thugs. The dark world of noir offers her an outlet to disrupt the treacherous path to disenfranchised femininity delineated everywhere else in the film.
Mia’s struggle for agency not only moves the narrative forward, but also contrasts with Wen’s defenseless victimization. Her perspective complements Wen’s story. The film juxtaposes the stories of the two girls in parallel sequences. Their actions start in sharp contrast. While the traumatized Wen hides in the janitor’s closet to escape a ruthless police interrogation, or runs away at the sight of Prosecutor Hao (Ke Shi), Mia deliberately reveals herself to Hao, chases local thugs, and even follows the rapist. Without their knowledge, however, the fates of the two girls intertwine and mirror each other. When the two rape victims ponder the meaning of the word “hymen,” which causes so much hysteria in their parents, Mia is threatened by Jian’s lust for her virginity. Prosecutor Hao shows Mia the picture of Wen “running away from home and living on the streets” to solicit her empathy, without knowing that the phrase summarizes Mia’s precarious life in the past three years. As the story unfolds, more and more parallel sequences juxtapose the two girls in similar states of loneliness and alienation. The distinction between witness and victim becomes blurred.
Mia’s narrative position and visual perspective make Angels Wear White a true woman’s film. At the beginning, Mia exists merely on a socioeconomic level. She is defined by her labor in multiple neorealist scenes depicting her cleaning, dusting, watering plants, and disposing of trash. She envies the two victims for the luxurious lifestyle she sees in them—the blonde wig she cherishes and the hotel room whose nightly cost exceeds her monthly salary. As her fate intertwines with those of Wen and Lily, Mia explores the various feminine symbols around her as they acquire increasingly dark connotations. The blonde wig bears the trauma of the fateful night. Lily stops wearing jewelry and makeup after her abortion. The earrings and cosmetics she gives Mia prove to be as much omens as souvenirs. This exploration traces the awakening of Mia’s gender and moral consciousness, connecting her to the other female characters through their shared vulnerability, as well as shared innocence, within the patriarchal society. The connection culminates in the film’s coda, where Mia dons a white dress similar to those worn by Wen in her most vulnerable moments.
Mia neither descends to the depth of a femme fatale nor reaches the height of an existentialist heroine. The film does not present the dark forces Mia confronts just as it never shows the face of the rapist. Instead, the progression of feminine symbols culminates in a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in her signature billowing white dress. The epitome of the objectification of women, the statue manifests the cruel and perilous course of womanhood through its fate. When Monroe first appears on the beach, she is a tourist favorite and a guardian angel to the girls. Mia admires her glamour; Wen finds shelter under her skirt on a desperate night. After witnessing many key scenes of Mia’s struggle in the dark, Monroe reappears in daylight with her fair legs defaced by advertisement stickers. Finally, the tarnished statue is dismantled and removed. Womanhood leads to objectification, exploitation, trauma, and shame. When women lose their decorative value, they face destruction like the defiled Monroe sculpture. Mia’s futile attempt to scrape the advertisement stickers off Monroe’s tainted legs is the only moral gesture this world allows her.
At the center of this vicious circle, the rape of the two girls lies silent and invisible like a black hole. Qu’s film is often regarded as a Chinese response to Silenced (Dong Hyuk Hwang, 2011) and Wish (Joon-ik Lee, 2013), two Korean melodramas that spurred national legislation to prevent the sexual abuse of children. The restraint of Angels, however, contrasts distinctly with the melodramatic sensationalism of the Korean films. According to the studies of literary scholar Peter Brooks and film scholar Linda Williams, melodrama differs from realism in its “will to force the status quo to yield signs of moral legibility.” Williams notes that big sensational scenes in melodrama serve to “put forth a moral truth in gesture and to picture what could not be fully spoken in words.” Film scholar Mary Ann Doane also notes that melodrama performs a “ritualized mourning of the woman’s losses in a patriarchal society.”
Angels Wear White avoids melodrama and sensationalism deliberately: no profuse tears, no violent wrath, no desperate resistance, and, above all, no direct confrontation of good and evil. The subdued tone deprives the audience of any opportunity for either mourning or moral recognition. This artistic choice may be the only way such a film could be made and publicly screened in China (where the ending is slightly but significantly altered). After all, the women and girls live in a world where the status quo suppresses “signs of moral legibility,” where villains are unrepresentable, and the unspeakable remains unspoken.
Lux Chen is a Chinese/English bilingual writer, translator, cinephile, and feminist looking for writing opportunities.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4