Near a sleepy seaside resort in a small Chinese town, a statue of Marilyn Monroe beckons. The piece is a commemoration of Monroe’s iconic pose in Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, struggling to cover up her legs as her white dress blows up around her face. Writer-director Vivian Qu has clearly internalized the under-acknowledged lewdness of this image, which springs from a sour, leering film. Angels Wear White opens on a teenage girl, Mia (Vicky Chen), looking up the statue’s skirt with undisguised awe. Qu doesn’t give the audience a full glimpse of the statue, but rather quick snippets of Monroe’s legs, lingering instead on Mia as she processes the mixed messages the statue embodies of commercialization, reverence, and condescension. Here, Monroe is filmed in a matter similar to how Gareth Edwards framed the titular monster of Godzilla: from the painfully limited perspective of comparatively insignificant human spectators. Qu physicalizes the way that a sex object can dwarf our own sense of agency.
The statue is a symptom of a hopelessly corrupt, sexist society. Mia surveys Monroe with the studied impassivity that she’s mastered while working at a motel and handling its denizens with no questions asked. Mia’s covering the front desk one night when a man brings in two little girls, Xin (Xinyue Jian) and Wen (Meijun Zhou), who are playing with a blond wig—an item that echoes the sexual idolization embodied by the statue on the beach. The man rents two rooms, but Mia sees him forcing his way into the girls’ room later in the night and records the security footage on her phone. The matter-of-factness of Mia’s action is damning of society writ large, as she sees girls potentially in jeopardy and seems to think only of a potential blackmail scam. Qu soon reveals this town to be correspondingly concerned with little apart from maintaining its power structure under a flimsy façade of empathy.
Angels Wear White recalls Top of the Lake, which is similarly concerned with unearthing male rot and the female fear and complacency that partially serve it. But Qu’s film is spryer and more mysterious, with a distinctive stylishness that suggests the emergence of a significant artist. The characters don’t talk us to death here as they do in Top of the Lake, as Qu conjures an aura of silence that’s complemented by roaming cameras and by blasts of white that ironically color hell in heavenly hues. And Chen and Zhou’s performances are superb, if reigned in: studies of imperiled children learning to play by rigged adult rules as soon as possible, as their lives are at stake.
Qu mercilessly follows Mia and Wen as they’re harassed by varying levels of authority, mapping out the Chinese methodology of indoctrinating women to submit to male pressure in scenes of thematically rhyming symmetry. Wen, unsurprisingly, is blamed for the sexual abuse she suffered, and detectives spend more energy trying to discredit her than in prosecuting the assailant. Wen is abused by her mother, who slaps her hard across the face in the film’s most shocking bit of violence, and cuts her hair and throws out her clothes, implicitly castigating Wen for being a whore. One of Mia’s older co-workers, Lily (Jing Peng), undergoes a procedure to restore her hymen, as virginity is prized for marriage, though sex is simultaneously pursued as a commodity. There’s no way to win. In one of the film’s bitterest, most stinging images, Mia watches a wedding photo shoot on the beach as the bride happily rides a horse in her white dress. Mia resents this vision and longs for its possibilities of hearth and legitimacy in equal measure, encapsulating our uneasy feelings about patriarchal rules that superficially flatter even the oppressed.
Like Top of the Lake, Angels Wear White is shackled to its conceit. Watching Qu’s film, one can’t help but wonder if there’s, by luck of odds, one honorable man in this town. (For the record, there appears to be only a single honorable woman.) And one also wonders why these children, though clearly older than their chronological years due to the intensity and severity of their lives, never act childlike. They are resolute, impassive, stoic, and poignant—to the point of being ciphers. Wen was presumably raped, and she largely seems to weather that atrocity as just another link in the chain of authoritarian evil that constricts her life. Qu’s accomplished, ultimately rigid style depends on a glamorous repression that reduces every character to a variable in her political equation. In her understandable fury, the filmmaker almost valorizes suffering, embracing it as a substantial signifier of identity.