By Tom Ue.
Writer, director, and producer Vivian Qu’s second film Angels Wear White is set in a small seaside town. Two schoolgirls were assaulted in a motel and the one witness, Mia (Wen Qi), is a teenager working on reception. The film follows the stories of Mia and one of the victims, Wen (Zhou Meijun). While Mia initially chose silence in the hopes of keeping her job, the effects of the crime ripple through the town. In her director’s statement, Qu writes:
In the southern coastal town where I wanted to set my story, I noticed that every day the sandy beaches were crowded with dozens of newly – weds, posing extravagantly for their wedding photos. It is a popular local business. The brides – wearing rented, often dirty wedding gowns – looked happy. They were sure that the stains on their dresses could be easily removed digitally, and that they would have a perfectly white dress in the photo, which they could keep forever.
We have associated the color white with purity since ancient times. In today’s society where anything can be commoditized, we have yet to reexamine the meaning of purity. Angels Wear White is therefore a hypothesis, a question with past, present, and future tenses.
Made with the support of Centre National du Cinema and Région Ile-de-France in France and Vision sud est in Switzerland, Angels Wear White screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In what follows, Qu and I discuss her goals with the film and some of the social concerns that motivated this project.
Congratulations on Angels Wear White, the second feature film that you directed! This film is an impressive work of neo-noir. What are some of your influences?
I didn’t look for specific genre references when I wrote the script, as all the ideas came from reality. Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, who always managed to subvert a genre or character type and do magic with the actors. Across the Atlantic there is Robert Bresson – I learned a lot from his elliptical story-telling – and Michelangelo Antonioni who always finds tension between his characters and their environment.
You had set the film in Hainan island: what were some of the challenges of filming there?
I filmed along the coast of Fujian Province. There weren’t any real challenges aside from the stormy weather that was unusual for the spring season. Also it took me quite a while to find the ideal location for erecting the statue.
At the Q&A that followed the public screening at TIFF, you spoke of the Marilyn Monroe story. What inspired the story of the crime?
I am deeply concerned about what is happening with our young generation – whether they become victims of assault or participants in a crime, where the society is preoccupied with money-making and development. News stories about children would naturally draw my attention. They were hard to forget. Eventually my story emerged from these memories.
What led you to focus on Mia’s and Wen’s stories?
I want to also have a bystander’s point of view in my story and this led me to add the motel clerk Mia’s character. The two girls play off each other like mirrors as we tend to forget that the roles of the victim and the bystander are often interchangeable.
There are limited interactions between Mia and Wen in particular: was this decision made on purpose? Why?
I want to keep it naturalistic and eliminate all the artificial coincidences that often happen in a film. The two girls’ connection is truer and far stronger through the mechanisms of the society.
I was struck by your comment at the Q&A when you said that there’s not necessarily a turning point wherein the policeman Inspector Wang (Li Mengnan) became corrupt: can you elaborate on this?
In a society where the system is always bigger than the individual, this is what happens.
Hao (Shi Ke), the attorney, remains optimistic, notwithstanding her fifteen years of experience with this system. What do you think keeps her going?
Also at the Q&A, you described the hope behind Mia driving away. Is there any hope to be found in the larger social story in the film? What kinds of opportunities are there for these female characters?
When I cast for the film, I must have seen nearly a thousand of young teen girls (10 to 13 years old). Of course they were from more privileged backgrounds compared to the millions of girls in small towns or the countryside. I was struck by their intelligence, curiosity, great ability to communicate, and not fearing to express their own opinions, far better than when I was a teenager. I can see that on their paths to adulthood, some will still be taught to conform, but many will not. And this gave me great hope.
What kind of future do you envision for Wen and Xinxin? Will they follow their parents’ footsteps?
The society is far behind in providing protection as well as post-trauma help for young victims of assault. They are pretty much on their own. How they will turn out largely depends on individual circumstances, which is another story that needs to be explored.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.