The sexual assault of two schoolgirls at a seaside motel isn't just the inciting incident in writer-director Vivian Qu's chilly, twisting Chinese crime drama "Angels Wear White": it's the prism through which Qu refracts the despairing state of girls and women in modern China.
Undocumented teenage motel employee Mia (Wen Qi) knows full well the situation when, on her night as a substitute receptionist, she checks in a surly middle-aged man with a pair of giggling, un-chaperoned 12-year-olds in tow. But with the crime being reported — revealing a well-connected suspect — Mia's status as the only witness means that cooperating with the investigation, much less with a female attorney (Shi Ke) crusading for justice, could lead to other problems. Similarly, Wen (Zhou Meijun), one of the assaulted kids, discovers for herself there are many ways to be a victim in a case tied to male power, pressurized parenting and a girl's reputation.
Propulsive and naturalistic without ever being exploitative, Qu's second feature sticks close to the emotional weather patterns of her story's troubled, escape-seeking girls, like a gumshoe whose nose is for complexities, not answers. She also makes great visual use of a giant plaster Marilyn Monroe-from-"The Seven Year Itch" statue at the beach. Its whiteness, iconic femininity and disconcerting view up her billowing dress make for a hovering metaphor while the movie's awful men remain mostly sidelined figures, but actively protecting the perimeter nevertheless. In its perceptions and mood, "Angels Wear White" plays like acutely serious female noir.
‘Angels Wear White’
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills