This is one of several movie suggestions written by students in the Chinese-Language Cinemas class of Winter 2019 (CHIN 3050/FILM 3350). For this “Playlist Project,” students looked for a film of interest not seen in class, watched and researched it, and wrote up their recommendation. More viewing suggestions will be posted each day leading up to the beginning of the new term.
Review written by Sarah MacPhee
The sophomore film of director Vivian Qu, Angels Wear White (Jiā Nián Huá, 2017) is, to say the least, a challenging viewing experience. Set in a small beachside town, the film follows the aftermath of the sexual assault of two young girls by a local commissioner. Qu follows one of the young girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meiju), as she struggles to navigate her circumstances in the wake of the assault and her continual re-traumatization by the adults who should be protecting her. We are also shown the plight of a young undocumented teen, Mia (Vicky Chen), who is the only person who can corroborate the involvement of the commissioner. In fear of losing her job, she must choose between maintaining her own security or helping Xiaowen’s lawyer, Hao (Shi Ke), expose the man’s crime. This harrowing look at systemic misogyny and violence against women and girls is as necessary today as it ever was. Qu resolutely and sympathetically addresses the film’s deeply unsettling subject matter.
Filled with visual and verbal commentary on the conditions under which women are forced to exist, one of the most gripping images is the looming statue of Marilyn Monroe featured throughout. Qu’s intentions are clear from the moment we lay eyes on it: the enormity of the statue lends itself only to up-skirt views and emphasis on the figure’s legs. This creates a vision of unwelcome sexualization as much as anything can. The symbolism only grows as the film progresses. As the girls are plunged deeper into the corruption that surrounds them, Marilyn’s legs go from a state of immaculate cleanliness to a defaced, dirtied mess. This mirrors both the adults’ perception of the girls – more concerned with reputation than anything else – as well as the girls’ own feelings towards themselves. The motif of angelic purity (and the sexualization of that purity) presented by the Monroe statue in her white dress outlines various issues that women face, some culturally specific, others universal. As stated by Qu about her selection of locations for the film, “…It’s not meant to be Xiamen or any place in particular… There’s no locality that’s important. It’s a really general [scenario].”1 Two key branches of the societal obsession with purity and virginity are explored, firstly, through the sexualization of young girls, which is very blatantly conveyed through the violent act at the core of this film, and also through victim-blaming carried out by parents and authority figures (insisting the crime was a result of frilly dresses, long hair, or alcohol consumption). And secondly, the infantilization of grown women which is addressed specifically through the concept of hymenoplasty. The exploration of these themes is of great significance due to their consistent prevalence. Put concisely, “the cultural fetish for female virginity or chastity with the institutional emphasis on the sexual component of rape contributes to a distinct cultural construction of rape in Chinese society.”2 And as these subjects are frequently considered taboo, and are often not handled sensitively, their presence in this film and the manner in which they are presented makes for an extremely important viewing.
In addition to this, as the film is addressing issues that disproportionately affect women, it is valuable that the cast is heavily female, and the film female-centric. Importantly, the film not only steers clear of any sort of male savior figure, it equally removes the attacker from our frame of reference. We never get a good look at his face – but we know exactly who he is. This encourages the audience to fully empathize with the victims without distraction and removes any chance of speculation as to the nature of the criminal, as is so often a problem in films that address sexual assault. The facelessness of the perpetrator allows for this character to act as a representation of a wider issue, he could be anyone, and he is the patriarchal system itself. The emphasis on his position in society and as a trusted individual is also an important addition to this narrative. In creating this film, along with making a statement that has an inherent respect for its characters and does not aim to further victimize or exploit, Qu provides commentary that is imperative in this day and age. Much as in real life the circumstances in this film are bleak and not easily fixed, and they remain so for the duration. Qu does not aim to comfort her audience; she places the onus on us to acknowledge that change must be made. Angels Wear White is an unblinking depiction of the harsh reality that faces many women in the patriarchal world we live in, but in the last moments on the film, we do feel the director’s hope as well.
1 Lee, Edmund. “How China’s Vivian Qu Made the First Great Film in #MeToo Zeitgeist.” South China Morning Post. May 09, 2018. Accessed March 18, 2019.https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2145316/angels-wear-white-director-vivianqu-metoo-movement-sexual-abuse.
2 Luo, Tsun-Yin. “”Marrying My Rapist?!”: The Cultural Trauma among Chinese Rape Survivors.” Gender and Society 14, no. 4 (2000): 581-97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/190303.
Angels Wear White. Directed by Vivian Qu. Performed by Vicky Chen, Zhou Meijun, Shi Ke, Peng Jing. China, France: 22 Hours Films, 2017. DVD.
Ganjavie, Amir. “Angels Wear White: Director Vivian Qu Discusses Her Hard-Hitting Drama And The Complexity Of Social Justice.” MovieMaker Magazine. October 03, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2019. https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/directing/angels-wear-whiteb-director-vivian–qu/.
Lee, Edmund. “How China’s Vivian Qu Made the First Great Film in #MeToo Zeitgeist.” South China Morning Post. May 09, 2018. Accessed March 18, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2145316/angels-wear-white-director-vivian–qu–metoo-movement-sexual-abuse.
Luo, Tsun-Yin. “”Marrying My Rapist?!”: The Cultural Trauma among Chinese Rape Survivors.” Gender and Society 14, no. 4 (2000): 581-97.http://www.jstor.org/stable/190303.
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