Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Angels Wear White (2017, Vivian Qu) confronts the issue of child sexual abuse in China, one of the few Chinese movies daring to talk about such topic. Although the film wasn’t widely released, and viewings for even its native Chinese audience were very limited, it still forces its viewers to ponder on the way child sexual abuse is handled in modern Chinese society.
The story is set in a small and quiet coastal town in Southern China. Two middle school girls have been sexually assaulted by a middle-aged government official in a motel. Mia (Vicky Chen), an impoverished teenager working illegally at the front desk that night, happens to be the only witness. Fearing that she will lose her job, Mia chooses to say nothing and hide the fact. However, for Wen (Meijun Zhou), one of the victims, the nightmare has just begun. Wen’s mother (Weiwei Liu) accuses Wen of not behaving well and also relegates the tragedy as a result of her own divorce with Wen’s father, whom she also blames. On the other hand, the government official who sexually abused the two girls offers an option to the families: he will pay for the two girls’ education until college, with the exchange that the families won’t sue him. Furthermore, even though Mia eventually chooses to tell the truth, the government official bribes the girls’ doctors and makes them claim that there is nothing wrong with the girls’ genitals.
Many movies addressing child sexual abuse have emerged over the world in recent years. A lot of them present this topic through the lawsuits and court conversations involved. In contrast, Angels Wear White characterizes this topic with a distinct and persistent problem of China’s current society, namely, the profound influence of bribery and settlement in private. One of the parents in the film gives voice to this usually unspoken yet accepted phenomenon: no one can say no to their daughter’s free education, and even if they actually sue the official into jail, after a couple of years, the official would still hold political power when coming out of jail. People like Wen’s parents have completely lost courage, power, or even hope to fight against the corrupt people in power, no matter how profoundly these officials have hurt their only child.
The two girls don’t have any right to speak for themselves throughout the film, and their silence represents the thousands of unknown child victims suffering from sexual abuse in China. Their lives are determined by irresponsible parents and shameless officials, and their misery is hidden even before the attempt of law suit.
Despite its highly emotional content, the film itself is presented, artistically, in a very non-emotional, almost chillingly matter-of-fact way. Even though it focuses on the frustrating inevitability of injustice, Angels Wear White actually dissuades its audience from developing strong hatred against any single character. Rather, it emphasizes how every one of its characters is responsible for causing this tragic incident. Mia is too afraid to tell the truth; Wen’s mother victim-blames her daughter, making no attempts of comforting her; the doctors choose to be bribed and lie even when the truth is blatant. The film also tones everything down visually and auditorily, aiming to use its muted colors and soundtrack to capture the non-fairy-tale-like, silently despairing atmosphere of Chinese reality for sexually abused children. The helpless face and fate of Wen represents the nameless, defenseless girls and boys being sexually abused constantly but are deprived of any right to speak under the threat of political power.
Unfortunately, the film wasn’t released widely both because of its political sensitivity, and because it is not developed as a competitive commercial product. Access to this film is, therefore, very limited. Because of the strict film censorship and audience’s desire for various commercial blockbusters, films like Angels Wear White don’t have much chance to confront the public with issues that are very much neglected. However, as a student from China, I am glad to see that at least such brave films are being made in China, and I hope to see more. I hope that my native moviegoers will also actively seek out every opportunity to reach for such films and talk about them. Understanding the recent context regarding sexual assault and abuse in America, I hope to introduce this film into the current conversation and provide a contemporary Chinese perspective.
Featured Image courtesy of edushi.com and baidu.com.