Starring Vicky Chen. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
At the start of Angels Wear White, a fretful teenager sits at the high-heeled feet of a massive statue. It’s a colossal representation of Marilyn Monroe, but the tale is nearly over before the camera pulls back far enough for us to see that. It’s an apt summation of a stunningly assured movie that metes out its narrative information incrementally, eventually revealing a complex portrait of modern women as sexualized prizes, rights-free workhorses, and subversive warriors.
The girl, called Mia, looks about 15. She’s played by potent young Taiwan-born TV veteran Wen Qi, now known as Vicky Chen—14 when this was shot. Mia has recently arrived on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point, slightly closer to Hanoi than it is to Hong Kong. She’s lucky to have found a Joe job at a seedy motel right on the beach where that Marilyn statue really loomed until recently.
Mia’s supposed to do the night cleaning, but the regular receptionist (Peng Jing), trading on her beauty at the expense of everything else, keeps flitting off with little notice. One evening, a drunken lout shows up with two severely underage girls, still in their white school uniforms. Mia pulls out her cellphone and shoots some security-cam footage of the guy forcing his way into the girls’ separate room. Too bad he’s the local police commissioner.
The story then switches focus to that pair of 12-year-olds involved, more so on Wen, played by the arresting Zhou Meijun, whose eyes tell much of the story. Her abusive mother (Liu Weiwei) blames the girl, and she seeks respite with her divorced dad (excellent Geng Le), who runs tourist rides down on the beach. (The film’s Chinese title translates as Carnival.) He’s the only male figure who takes the girls’ vulnerable position seriously. In fact, Wen’s friend’s more middle-class parents are happy to take a payoff. And local police are stuck working for the perpetrator. Only a compassionate female attorney (Shi Ke) keeps pushing the case forward.
The subject sounds heavy, but writer-director Vivian Qu, following her superb debut, Trap Street, is more poet than social activist. The music is spare, the pacing confident, and the location’s tropical beauty, lustrously captured by Belgian cinematographer Benoît Dervaux in this France-China coproduction, provides sun-dappled counterpoint to the noirish plot machinations. These keep ratcheting up as Mia tries to cash in on her cellphone evidence before the motel’s freaked-out manager (The Great Buddha+’s Bamboo Chen) can get rid of her. Like all the women and girls in White, she has nowhere to go and yet everything to be.