Pouring cups of tea and speaking in the practiced staccato common to tour guides and salespeople across China, a young woman wearing a nurse’s uniform outlines the advantages of hymen-reconstruction surgery. Lily, a newly single hotel receptionist in her early twenties, listens nervously. The nurse ends her pitch with the assurance that Lily will find the procedure “absolutely painless.”
She is, of course, lying to make the sale: the next shot cuts to Lily drunk and doubled over in agony as she is dragged up a narrow flight of stairs by her younger co-worker Mia, who somehow manages to wrangle Lily into the small room the two share at the seedy seaside motel where they work. Sobbing, Lily curls up in bed and peers at Mia through her tears. “I don’t want to be reborn as a woman,” Lily chokes out. “Not all over again.”
Indeed, being a woman seems a terrible fate for all the female characters in Angels Wear White (嘉年华 Jia nian hua, 2017), a tense, haunting examination of gender relations, sexual objectification, and violence in China written and directed by Vivian Qu.
When the movie begins, Lily has convinced Mia to cover the motel reception desk for the night so Lily can sneak off to see her sleazy boyfriend, Jian. A black luxury sedan—the kind favored by Chinese Communist Party officials—with local license plates pulls up to the motel’s entrance, and a middle-aged man accompanied by two laughing 12-year-old girls in sailor-dress school uniforms registers for two rooms. Dispassionately, Mia carries out her duties and delivers beer to the girls’ room when they call down for it. But she clearly understands the situation, keeping a watchful eye on the security monitors, and when the man forces his way into the girls’ room a short time later Mia captures his actions on a cellphone video.
The plot of Angels Wear White unfolds from there. The man is revealed to be Commissioner Liu, a high-ranking police official, and the two girls he has raped are Xin and Wen. Xin’s parents just want to make the situation go away; Xin’s father is one of Liu’s underlings and knows that pursuing a case against his boss will only serve to destroy his own career. Wen’s single mother blames her daughter for the assault and shears off the girl’s hair in punishment. Wen runs away to her father’s house—and though he is introduced as an inattentive deadbeat dad, he turns out to be one of the only adults motivated by a desire for justice, not money.
The other is Wen’s lawyer, Attorney Hao; a no-nonsense but kind advocate, she has spent 15 years working on behalf of assault victims. Hao is the only adult who understands the trauma that Xin and Wen have undergone and that it did not end when they left the motel. The girls are violated again and again during the three-week investigation into their case, as they are interrogated, blamed, and overall treated as perpetrators by the police. There’s no victims’ advocate by their side during the brusque hospital rape exam, no explanation that they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder, no offer of therapy. (And, of course, those practices are still not always standard everywhere in the United States, either.)
Mia, an underage runaway with no official identity card, wants nothing to do with a police investigation, but she quickly realizes the truth of Jian’s assertion that “Information is money.” Whether that money comes from Attorney Hao or Commissioner Liu—whether the information she possesses gets justice for Xin and Wen or not—doesn’t matter. But Mia isn’t as tough as she imagines herself: when she tries to profit by playing the same game as all the corrupt men she sees, her victory doesn’t last because being a woman makes her vulnerable. She’s smaller, weaker, and slower than the men around her and can therefore be physically dominated by them.
Only after watching Angels Wear White for the third time did I realize that one line, seemingly a throwaway, kept standing out to me as Wen’s parents argue over whether or not she should stay with her father after running away. “It’s her choice, not mine,” he mutters—a rare moment in which one of the movie’s male characters treats a female one as an autonomous being capable of making decisions about her own life. Other men of Angels Wear White constantly take away the agency of women, from the schoolmate who posts a photo of Xin and Wen on social media without their permission, to Jian, who pimps out Lily to his boss to curry favor. Even the film’s most unsubtle symbol, a massive statue of Marilyn Monroe (wearing her famous white dress from The Seven-Year Itch) that stands alongside the beach, is dismantled and moved by an all-male construction crew.
Angels Wear White premiered in September 2017, just before the #MeToo movement launched an international discussion of sexual assault and abuse of power. The Chinese Communist Party has worked hard to squelch #MeToo in the PRC, as leaders are surely aware of the many cases involving officials like Commissioner Liu that would come to light. Still, such stories manage to get told, and Qu’s film emphasizes the need for not just systemic but societal change in dealing with rape; the police aren’t the only ones who conspire to tell Xin and Wen they’d be better off forgetting what was done to them. There’s an extra layer of menace when the Party-state denies and silences women, but as the #MeToo outcry around the world has clearly demonstrated, these violations are not at all unique to China.
Angels Wear White is available on Amazon to rent, or stream for free with Prime membership.