Although hailed by many as the only feature by a female (and Chinese) director to compete in the main competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival, to reduce producer-writer-director Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White to its surrounding accomplishments would be to undersell what is achieved through the incisive blows that materialize from its skeletal framework. On a hot day in a seaside town running on tourism, two girls in pristine school uniforms—Xiaowen (Zhou Meijun) and Xinxin (Zhang Xinyue)—are sexually assaulted in a hotel. The perpetrator is the town’s district commissioner, who they, their parents, and the lawyers and local police officers know. But to issue an arrest warrant for a man in power requires far more evidence than these claims, and this evidence belongs to the assault’s only witness: Mia (Wen Qi), an underage migrant worker without a proper ID, whose coming forward could jeopardize her only source of income.
The daze induced by Angels Wear White, the follow-up to Qu’s debut feature Trap Street (2013), deepens like a sliver of a needle injected beneath the skin: each detail grips like a strained muscle aching for relief. And while the violent event itself does not appear onscreen, the damage and debris is clearly visible in the hospitals and homes filled with well-meaning but grabby adults, each so panicked by the threat of losing something of their own that the needs of the wide-eyed girls drift on unnoticed. The film’s Chinese title, Jia Nuan Hua, translates to "carnival." In Qu’s tiny pocket of the universe, the carnival is a constructed image projected by a society that neither protects nor advocates for women. But it is also dually where Xiaowen and Xinxin discover a shimmer of solace from the danger posed against their being, taking iPhone pictures of one another and Facetiming by the sea; and where Mia can secure a place for herself away from her hometown.
It would not be inappropriate to place the film into a larger discussion on nuanced female characters in cinema. When no one else is watching, the girls carry out their stubborn wills in ways that many would find frustratingly self-centered or misguided, and these moments come to signify the presence of an inextricable selfhood. But for the better, Angels Wear White is not complex; it picks a side and stands by it. The film is straightforward, blunt, and rigorous, with little ambiguity about where it stands on matters of misogyny and corruption in Chinese society—the family, the workplace, the government—and what it means to come of age beneath these looming shadows as a girl with a cellphone but without anyone to call for help.
Much thanks to Hyobin An for graciously helping with the recording of the following interview.
NOTEBOOK: What I loved about the film was that even at its end, the girls still have the ability to hold onto their own identities even after what has happened, and can still enjoy their childhood.
VIVIAN QU: All children are innocent. But we are teaching them certain values much too soon, in the wrong way.
NOTEBOOK: The girls themselves don’t really know everything that is going on or the extent of what has happened to and around them. Could you speak to this idea of naivety and how it extends to the role girls play in Chinese society?
QU: We don’t really talk about women’s issues that much in our society. We often think it is not the most urgent or not the most important; we always have something else to talk about and we push this aside. But when I look at a woman, I realize the set of values that she has actually came from when she was growing up, how she was taught and what kind of choices she was given. Most of these women didn’t have the opportunity to break out from what [their lives were] directed towards. It is really sad. I wanted to really look at the whole past of a woman, from the young adolescent to the mature woman, and really examine how we became what we became.
NOTEBOOK: They also come from slightly similar but different class backgrounds, in terms of the parents’ occupations. How much do you feel class plays into these gender dynamics?
QU: Class is a big issue in our society. But in terms of how women react towards all these social pressures, I think the difference is only on the surface, only superficial. You can look at the kind of issues that a female corporate executive faces and how they are very different from a country girl, but the root may be the same. We are all one woman, we are all the same.
NOTEBOOK: In the film, the relationship between women and what could be solidarity is interrupted by money and the law.
QU: It is a pity that the value system has been changing. For Mia, who works in the hotel, because she works on her own money became the most important thing. I think children are really the mirror of the adult world; what we are doing, they are just copying. Mia learned the rules of the adult world, where everything has a price, even her body. It is really unfortunate but when children do not have the proper care of the family or a proper education, that is what they learn.
NOTEBOOK: How did you develop the film’s point of view? Did you write from a specific character’s perspective?
VIVIAN QU: I wanted to adopt a bystander’s point of view. This is why I have this character, Mia. In these stories there are always victims. But I felt I might be able to examine our role in this society as well, because we are all bystanders, we are all witnessing these things while sitting there not doing too much. This is a very important development in my script-writing process. By having [the role of Mia] we can really look at ourselves and our relationship with victims.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any difficulties with working with the younger actors and guiding them into enacting these traumatic experiences?
QU: It was a challenging task. But even when I was writing the script I made the decision to only write situations that [the actors] are able to play. The youngest girl was 11 years old. Because she didn’t really understand what happened, rather than have her go through what she doesn’t understand we talked to her about relationships and seeking love from her parents, and she was able to draw from those experiences. We only gave her scene-by-scene, something very straightforward and very simple for her to act. We gave [the actor who plays Mia] half of the script. She understood herself as a tough, young woman, trying to make money all the time. I wanted her to focus on how she has no time to pity herself, no time to think about the past three years, and how she only wants to go forward. This she could understand and could do.
NOTEBOOK: I was taken aback by the colors of the film, which are very bright without dramatic lighting. The sand is so white and the sun is always shining. It is almost scary how everything is so exposed.
QU: This is already a very heavy subject matter; so I didn’t want to make a lot of artificial choices with very grim colors or dark corners. I didn’t want to impose something onto the viewer. I wanted to show that in everyday life, on the surface and in the beginning, a lot of the violence doesn’t appear so violent. But then you realize that the most violent thing may not look violent at all. I wanted to evoke this feel, a seemingly peaceful time where we are actually experiencing very violent things. For the young girls, they still see beautiful colors on the beach, but troubled events still happen to them.
NOTEBOOK: I noted several fantasy-like props and set pieces: the Marilyn Monroe statue, the makeup, the wig, and the tunnel. And the girls are also the only ones that interact with these objects. What is the film’s relationship between the fantasy world and reality?
QU: I’ve never been asked this before! We live in a time that is very much carnival-like. All these things are happening, turning, constantly. My impression of the world is that it really looks like the amusement park that we see in the film. We are often drawn by its fantastical sides and we forget what is happening in the quiet corners.