Angels Wear White (China, 2017)

A girl examines a massive, disembodied foot wearing a white shoe. Could it be a huge sandal, since we’re on the boardwalk of a seaside village? No such luck. The foot – literally objectified in the opening scene of Angels Wear White – turns out to be part of a massive sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, frozen as her white skirt flies up like it did in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

A hard-hitting portrait of violence against women as told through the eyes of three girls making their way through contemporary China, Vivian Qu’s second feature combines visually arresting images with a strong narrative through-line. This piece of socially conscious realism shows what can happen to society’s most vulnerable in the wake a violent attack, especially when public opinion and tradition are at odds with the idea of justice.

Working at a motel and sleeping on a bunk bed in a cramped room in the back, Xiaomi, also known as Mia (Wen Qi), is a 15-year-old migrant. She just wants to obtain identity papers so that she can live and work more freely, instead of in shadowy economy that leaves her increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. When two young girls arrive, giggling and giddy, with a grown man, she thinks little of it. But then she witnesses something chilling on the security camera: the man pushing the two girls into their room. She records it on her phone. Later, it comes to light that the middle-aged guest, Police Comissioner Liu, allegedly violently sexually assaulted the 12-year-old schoolgirls, Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xin (Zhang Xinyue). Mia struggles with whether or not to come forward with information that could convict him but which also could mean losing her job, the roof over her head, and any chance at obtaining ID – everything she has worked so hard for.

Beautiful cinematography belies disturbing but necessary scenes that give this movie so much of its emotional weight. Wen’s mother destroys her young daughter’s clothes before chopping off her hair. A “hymen reconstruction” procedure (purported to help one find a good husband) leaves Lili writhing on her bunk bed. Lili’s boyfriend has the power to make Mia’s life easier, but instead uses that power to exert sexual control over her. Many scenes are uncomfortable to watch, but that is by design. Comparisons to the #MeToo movement are all but inevitable (although this film premiered a month before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke) but the truth is that violence against women is nothing new. This film showcases the insidious ways that society makes women and girls feel inadequate on a daily basis.

The female characters take center stage here. Wen carries the film as Mia, who is living a hand to mouth existence while trying to eke out a place for herself in a society that would rather forget about her. Mia’s relationship with her older coworker, Lili (Peng Jing), is a core relationship that makes for powerful scenes. Attorney Hao (Shi Ke) acts as a voice of reason during this tumultuous case, but ultimately cannot win against greater societal forces that are no match even for her legal prowess.

The interactions between the two schoolgirls feel naturalistic and real; in lieu of outward expressions of trauma, the girls deal with it in a way that is so repressed and reserved as to be painful to witness. In a cruel twist of irony, many of the parents carry on screaming and crying, but the girls do not, instead communicating in sideways glances and small gestures of childhood friendship – hands clasped together, words whispered.

The ending pulls no punches and will likely leave viewers frustrated, but it showcases harsh realities as families are forced to prioritize “saving face” over the welfare of their own daughters and as youth face an uncertain future in a modernizing world that, with every step forward, threatens to leave them behind. Even so, there are glimmers of hope, especially for Mia, who attempts to take charge of her destiny. Still, when the statue of Marilyn Monroe – herself nothing more than the product of a society constantly obsessed with sex and yet often disdainful of female sexuality – finally comes toppling down, it feels like too little, too late.

Angels Wear White is available on DVD from Icarus Films.