Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Angels Wear White: Based on True Stories

There have been a number of reports of Chinese elementary and middle school students who have been sexually assaulted by teachers and government officials, but the infamous Hainan rape case is the most obvious analog for this based-on-a-true-story film. When two young girls are assaulted by a local government official, the police immediately circle the wagons—protecting the predator, exactly as they did in Hainan. It is not just the girls’ reputations that are at risk. Their very lives will be in danger throughout Vivian Qu’s way-beyond-zeitgeisty Angels Wear White (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The official in question took eleven or twelvish Wen and her friend Xin (his god-daughter) out for a night of karaoke, after which he checked them into a quiet seasonal hotel, plied them with beer, and then forced his way into their room, over their objections. That last part was captured on the hotel’s surveillance camera, but the footage is mysteriously missing—not that the cops want to find it.

Of course, the owner hopes to avoid trouble with the authorities and fifteen-year-old runaway Xiaomi (“Mia”) wants to avoid trouble with her boss. Since she does not have a valid residency permit, she is not working there legally. Yet, she was the one who checked in the Party predator and the girls, covering for her co-worker Lily, who was off partying with her thuggish boyfriend.

Both girls find themselves on the receiving end of the cops’ victim-blaming, but it is far worse for Wen, the economically disadvantaged product of a broken home. However, she gets one break when Attorney Hao, possibly the town’s only honest lawyer, takes her on as a client.

This is an absolutely searing film that will definitely leave a mark on anyone who sees it. The lazy critical response will merely lump it in with the general hashtag trend, but it cuts much deeper than that. Through a semi-fictional lens, Qu exposes corruption in Chinese government that is so pervasive and rotten, it has contaminated all pillars of society. This is an impassioned indictment of the Hainan authorities and every other government official who abused his power, as well as the grafters and enablers colluding with them. Yet, on-screen, it still works brilliantly as a completely absorbing drama.

Qu’s young cast is absolutely remarkable, starting with the astonishingly forceful and utterly natural Wen Qi (a.k.a. Vicky Chen) as Mia. She is not always the most sympathetic teenager in the world, but she makes her acutely and messily human. Likewise, frightfully young-looking Zhou Meijun’s performance as Wen is absolutely harrowing and profoundly heartbreaking.

They are the leads and their work defines the film, but it would be a gross injustice to overlook Peng Jing’s portrayal of Lily. Her pseudo-mentoring of Mia represents an intriguing relationship that gives the film even greater depth. She too will also be the victim of men’s predatory violence, but her lowkey, more resigned response hits the audience just as hard. This narrative belongs to the young women and the girls, but Geng Le adds further pathos as Meng Tao’s Wen’s deadbeat father, who starts to step-up for her, because somebody has to.

Qu weaves together a plethora of subplots with admirable dexterity and maintains an atmosphere of nearly suffocating tension. Trap Street was an impressive feature directorial debut, but Angels is a stunningly bold and staggeringly honest cinematic statement. This film will make you angry and deeply sad, but the fresh talent it showcases also generates excitement for their future promise. Very highly recommended for anyone who considers film an artform or a valid means of social criticism, Angels Wear White opens this Friday (5/4) in New York, at the Metrograph.