'Angels Wear White' ('Jia Nian Hua'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Where angels fear to tread.

Chinese director Vivian Qu's second film, after 'Trap Street,' premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

With her second feature, Angels Wear White (Jia Nian Hua), Chinese director Vivian Qu graduates from the Venice Critics’ Week, where her 2013 debut Trap Street premiered, to the main competition of the festival. But this tale, which follows one of two girls of about 12 who was assaulted at a seaside hotel, and the teenage girl who was working the reception there that night, demonstrates many of the same weaknesses of her first feature — though its final shot does pack an impressive punch.

Dramatically exceptionally subdued, this story of rape and corruption leaves all the violence and histrionics off-screen, focusing instead on the rather quiet but nonetheless complex aftermath for both one of the victims and a bystander who is worried that her knowledge about the affair might cost her her job. Luminously filmed but restrained to a fault, this is the kind of drama that suggests something about the difficult position of women in China, but what exactly the film wants to say is harder to pin down. After its Venice and Toronto bows, Angels Wear White should see at least as healthy a festival life as Trap Street, with a few scattered theatrical pickups likely.

Teenager Mia (Wen Qi) is first seen checking out Forever Marilyn, a gigantic statue of Marilyn Monroe, on the boardwalk of the resort town on the island province of Hainan, where she works. She then returns to the hotel where she’s working the night shift at the reception desk. There, she checks in a man (Cao Yunqing), never properly seen on camera, and two little girls, Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xin (Jiang Xinyue), who are staying in the room next to him — or are supposed to, anyway. One of the girls has a blonde wig and beer is ordered during the night but what happens in the room is never shown.

The next day, it emerges that the girls were assaulted, as confirmed by a hospital visit. Viewers might at first believe the girls are so quiet because they are shell-shocked by what happened, but in reality Xin quickly disappears from view and Wen doesn’t much change her expressions or behavior over the following days, though she does run away from her mother’s house to the home of her divorced father (Geng Le), who reluctantly takes her under his wing. Oddly, neither parent seems to think it’s a problem that the girl goes everywhere by herself, even after she’s been raped.

Besides Wen, the film’s second protagonist is Mia, who, it turns out, is actually a cleaning lady at the hotel and was only covering for her roommate, Lily (Peng Jing), the actual receptionist, who was out with her boyfriend that night. When the police, led by Inspector Wang (Li Mengnan), arrive and question them, initially the girls stick to the official version of the story to protect their minor offenses. But the police and an inquisitive and whip-smart lawyer, Mrs. Hao (Shi Ke), will quickly figure out there is more to the story, especially where Mia is concerned. Thinking she is smart, she tries to sell her knowledge to Mrs. Hao, but as someone with secrets of her own that necessitate a lot of money to solve, Mia is on very thin ice.

As in Trap Street, Qu seems interested in questions of surveillance and in finding a workable entente between sketching a portrait of modern China and crime and genre elements (she also produced the Berlinale Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice, which did something similar). But, also like in her previous work, the safe distance from which she observes her characters gives the proceedings a dispassionate quality that makes it hard to really care for the people onscreen, while the decision here to follow both a victim and a (partial) witness makes possible audience identification even more complicated. It takes a while for the film’s two-mirrored-leads configuration to materialize, also because certain questions are never fully answered. Why, for example, did the story need two girls when only one of them will become a protagonist? And why exactly does Qu want to contrast a teenager who, as an employee, already has responsibilities and thus (albeit very small) assets and interests to protect and whose behavior will be dictated by that and someone who, as a 12-year-old, is entirely innocent and dependent on her parents? 

Since almost the entire cast is female, a portrait of women in a small town in southern China does emerge, with quite a few of them making decisions that are not always in their best interest, simply to try and stay afloat in a world dominated by men, whether they are onscreen or not. Perhaps Qu’s near-passive tone is meant to suggest that women don’t have much of a voice in society. But the story's almost complete lack of emotion also negatively impacts the viewers’ interest in the women’s plight. What does come through loud and clear is that Angels Wear White paints an unflattering portrait of not only how women are treated but also of how men try to protect their turf at all costs. (Whether that will make it a more difficult project to distribute locally remains to be seen.)

Belgian cinematographer Benoit Dervaux shoots most of the daytime scenes in a milky, softly glowing light that seems inspired by the title and that belies all the dark things that happen offscreen. The visual leitmotif of the Forever Marilyn statue, with its exposed undergarments under her famous white dress hovering over the tourists who come to admire it, is a bit on-the-nose as a metaphor for the position of women in society, but it does afford Qu a killer final scene and shot that lingers in the mind. Wen Zi’s score is initially entirely absent, then used sparingly and, especially in the final stretch, judiciously. 

Production companies: 22 Hours Films, Mandrake Films
Cast: Wen Qi, Zhou Meijun, Shi Ke, Geng Le, Liu Weiwei, Peng Jing, Wang Yuexin, Li Mengnan, Jiang Xinyue, Chen Chu Sheng
Writer-director: Vivian Qu
Producer: Sean Chen
Director of photography: Benoit Dervaux
Production designer: Peng Shaoying
Costume designer: Wang Tao
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Music: Wen Zi
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch

In Mandarin
107 minutes

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