Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The utter hopelessness of today's China: Vivian Qu's noir melodrama ANGELS WEAR WHITE

I'm not sure from where the title of this very dark and unsettling Asian-noir melodrama comes from, but the only even partial white worn in ANGELS WEAR WHITE, the new film from writer/director Vivian Qu (shown below), comes at the film's beginning, as a couple of young schoolgirls check into a seaside hotel, accompanied by an older man who seems just a tad suspicious. After that, we have to wait until the finale of this popular-at-festivals film to finally give us an all-white dress worn by its lead actress, the very good Vicky Chen, who ends this film in an oddball scene that
combines coincidence with a feel-good climax which can be interpreted, I suspect, in several ways: as an escape (but to where?), as the filmmaker's need to give us something positive at last, or perhaps as the old died-and-gone-to-heaven number in which our heroine is now one of those titular "angels."

In any case, how you react to this finale -- which includes, by the way, a marvelous and surprising use of one of Hollywood's most enduring icons -- will probably determine your approval rating for Angels Wear White.

The film tells the tale of the two little girls (above), together with their "keeper," all of whom are checked into that hotel by Mia, an only slightly older girl who, without proper identity papers, is working illegally at the hotel and soon becomes privy to a very bad event that happens there.

The first thing you may notice here, something that continues and only grows worse throughout the movie, is how venal and crooked is almost everyone we see. If Ms Qu is not saying that corruption is a -- probably the -- way of life in China, I'd be very surprised. One can't help but wonder how a film like this got by the Chinese censors. (I'm very glad it did, however.)

As usual, the more powerful are the people shown, the more corrupt and impossible-to-counter they are. This makes cops, top to bottom, the worst of the lot, with the medical profession not too far behind. Women, particularly young girls, are at the bottom of the power chain. Not to say that Ms Qu does not indict women, too. The little girl we get to know best here, Wen, has a mother (below, left) you would gladly rid the girl of, had you the chance.

In the heroics department are just two people, a female lawyer (played by Shi Ke, shown below) who stays on top of the abuse case in the center of the film, along with Wen's up-till-now mostly absentee father, Geng Le (above, right), whom we first imagine to be just another male "rotter" but who slowly takes on surprising depth and emotional strength at the movie moves along.

By the roiling and powerful climax, you'll want to take a semi-automatic to both the police and the hospital doctors. And yet what shortly precedes and then follows this seems sheer folly in terms of filmmaking. When a certain character turns out to be have been badly beaten (instead of being outright murdered, which would make much more sense, given the society we've seen here) and then a short time later appears bruise-free so that she can dress in white (like those titular angels) and give us a feel-good finale, you will wonder if Ms Qu has capitulated to Hollywood -- and not simply because of how she presents that movie-star icon at film's end.

The performances are A-1, especially from the three young girls, as well as that of Ms Shi as the lady lawyer and Mr. Le as Wen's dad. And the director's use of background shots -- as, above, with various wedding photos being taken near the beachside hotel -- speaks volumes about appearance vs reality in Chinese culture. Angels Wear White has much to recommend it. I just wish it had a little more.

From KimStim, in Chinese and with English subtitles and running 107 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, May 4, in New York City at The Metrograph, and on May 18 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3.

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