While it isn’t a perfect film, Angels Wear White is a bleak, meditative examination of girlhood and power.
Directed by Vivian Qu (Trap Street), Angels Wear White opens on a sleepy motel in a seaside resort village where a teenage maid, Mia (Vicky Chen), has been asked to cover reception for her party-girl co-worker. During Mia’s shift, a man checks into the hotel with two under-age girls and Mia becomes the central witness to a horrible crime that no one can prove took place. The film shifts smoothly between Mia’s story and the perspective of one of the young girls, Wen, as the Chinese police and Wen’s lawyer attempt to piece together the truth.
The setting of the film becomes a clever metaphor for female adolescence. The seaside town where Mia works hasn’t yet entered the busy season. The beaches are largely empty, besides the bridal parties set up along the shoreline for wedding photoshoots in their extravagant gowns. In one particularly moving scene, Wen and her friend play in an abandoned waterpark. They run underneath the dirty, dry waterslides – the brightly coloured funnels and tubes an obvious metaphor for their own childhoods: decaying, forgotten, neglected.
Though the plot unravels slowly, the intimacy of the cinematography is deeply engrossing. Qu has a careful eye for shots that play with the emotional connection between the audience and the characters on screen. The moments of violence in the film, and there are many, are never gratuitous or exploitative. These acts take place just out of sight, behind closed doors and in darkened bushes. So often, violence against women in film is featured in excruciating detail. Qu’s approach is a refreshing one, rather than show her characters as victims, Qu opts to show them as human beings whose physical and emotional pain speaks to their experiences far more profoundly than showing those experiences on screen. The audience understands who these girls are and what has happened to them not by their screams in the moment of attack or by their blood, but from the way they hold their bodies the morning after. The mistrust that they wear on their skin in the ordinary moments of their daily lives.
The experience of growing up female is one of my favorite subjects in art and one that is often difficult to get right on film. Ultimately, Angels Wear White is a deeply affective film that successfully merges story and symbolism in order to paint a moving portrait of girlhood that transcends cultural boundaries.
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