Starring: Vicky Chen, Zhou Meijun, Le Geng
Director: Vivian Qu
Running Time: 107 mins
Angels Wear White is a Chinese film about a teenager working in a quiet seaside motel who, after witnessing a man abuse two 12 year old girls. struggles to keep quiet in order to keep her job. However, one of the young victims begins suffering more serious consequences as the investigation into the incident continues.
This is a very, very heavy film. It’s slow, it’s dark and it features some seriously unsettling sequences that will make you feel like there’s nothing to live for at times. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an incredibly riveting and very well-executed film, featuring some really strong performances in tandem with brilliant directing and a screenplay that, although it may not move along with so much urgency, is full of fascinating twists.
Let’s start off with what makes the film work so well: Vivian Qu’s directing. Throughout, Angels Wear White feels a lot like watching one of the Dardennes Brothers’ films, simply because it’s directed in such a frank and often exhausting manner. Qu does a brilliant job to give the film its rather harrowing atmosphere by never relenting when it comes to showing some very unsettling moments, but she also manages to keep that darker, disturbing sense running at every moment throughout the film.
For one, there’s very little in the way of a score here. Yes, there are a couple of scenes with a bit of background music, but for the most part, it’s either total silence or a very unnerving violin playing an incredibly deep sound. Couple that with the fact that there are often lengthy periods without any dialogue, and the film becomes a truly unsettling watch, often emotionally exhausting in the fact that you have to witness people going through an incredibly tough situation while struggling to keep themselves together.
And then there are all the long takes. Much like some of the Dardennes’ recent films, Qu’s Angels Wear White is full of very long and again exhausting takes, following characters around in their environment with barely any cuts. Of course, it’s not all in one take, but its slow pace and heavy atmosphere is further accentuated by the fact that so many scenes seem to drag on, furthering the sense of despair and frustration felt by the characters.
That may seem like a downside to some, and although it doesn’t make the film any easier to watch, the cinematography is a vital part of the film’s hugely affecting atmosphere, cementing it as a confidently-delivered drama that’s simply very heavy-going on the emotional side.
Moving on, the plot too is full of very dark and often really disturbing events that make it just as heavy, and yet still absolutely riveting to watch. While the central plot focuses on the investigation that unfolds surrounding the abusing of two young girls, the film delves into a series of other deeper issues that many people in modern China do suffer with.
On the one hand, the story’s darkest side looks at how one of the victims’ life turns even worse after the incident following the fallout in her family. Assessing the fracturing nature of the modern family in a fascinating light, as well as the overbearing pressure of traditional values on young children, it’s not what you’d call an inspiring story, but it is one that will give you an enthralling insight into some very deep, hidden problems.
On the other hand, the story also follows Vicky Chen’s character, a teenager working in a small motel without an ID card. Although her background is left a mystery for much of the story, the film sheds light on the difficulties that those without an ID card can suffer, even if they are honest, hard-working people. As an effective necessity for almost anything in modern-day China, this one girl is forced into an awful situation that not only puts more and more pressure on her own struggling life, but also begins to affect innocent parties around her, a particularly frustrating and upsetting side to the film’s story.
Finally, let’s look at the performances, which are all excellent. Being a very quiet and often dialogue-light film, the cast of Angels Wear White are required to rely a lot more on their own acting talents to put across their characters’ emotions, something that’s very impressive to see throughout.
Above all, Vicky Chen, Zhou Meijun (who plays the young girl) and Shi Ke are the stand-outs of the film. Chen and Zhou both bring their young characters’ desperation to light brilliantly through very nuanced and confident performances, showing one of the film’s central themes – loss of innocence – in a terrifyingly strong light. Shi Ke, on the other hand, plays a lawyer working on the investigation on the side of the young girl, and she really makes a big impression on the film by bringing a small shred of light to proceedings, giving you a tiny morsel of hope that things in this desperate situation could turn out okay in the end.
Overall, I was very impressed by Angels Wear White. Nobody said it was going to be an easy watch, but it is a remarkably heavy-going and often harrowing story that, with very confident and effective directing, is an often emotionally exhausting and unsettling watch, furthered by dark drama and themes, and brought to life by some very impressive performances, which is why I’m giving it a 7.7.