Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 4, 2018

Angels Wear White

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Purely by coincidence, “Angels Wear White” bears a striking resemblance to last year’s “The Florida Project”, a film I nominated for best of 2017. Like “The Florida Project”, most of the action in “Angels Wear White” takes place in a motel—in this instance on a seaside resort in southwest China’s that is bathed in sunlight. Like Sean Baker, the director of “Florida Project”, Vivian Qu’s film revolves around two women dealing with class and sexual oppression. Baker’s characters were a single mother forced into becoming a hooker out of economic desperation and her six-year old daughter who is the charismatic gang leader of the motel’s bored and restless children. Finally, like the “Florida Project”, “Angels Wear White” is an outstanding film that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2018.

In “Angels Wear White”, we first meet Mia who is subbing at the reception desk for her friend Lily who has a date with her boyfriend. Mia’s regular job is cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry and other menial tasks. On her lonely shift (the tourist season has not yet started), a middle-aged man approaches the desk with two young girls wearing white naval-style school uniforms in tow, with one of them wearing a blonde wig. Mia doesn’t bother to ask the man, who registers for adjoining rooms, what he is doing with the children since we can assume that such questions are not often asked in China, especially by a housekeeper who lacks a proper ID. Not long after the girls order four beers, Mia is at least concerned enough to keep an eye on the video security monitor. When she sees the two girls pushing the man out of their room, she decides to film the confrontation on her smart phone—an act that sets the narrative in motion.

Eventually, the children’s parents discover what took place and bring them to a clinic where an examination reveals that they have been raped. They oscillate between rage at the children for acting like sluts and at the man who took advantage of them.

It turns out that he is the police commissioner and a powerful figure in the small town, which obviously puts constraints on the investigation that begins after the medical exam. A lawyer for the prosecution contacts Mia about what she saw that night but is frustrated by the young woman’s reluctance to share information. Her boss, who understands power relations in the town, has warned her that she will be out of a job if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut. Since Mia is only 15 years old (played by the 14-year old actress Vicky Chen) and lacks a proper ID that would allow her to apply for other jobs, she is as vulnerable as the two children.

The girl in the blonde wig is named Wen. Like the waif in “The Florida Project”, she simultaneously street-smart and innocent. When her friend tells her in the clinic that their hymen has been broken, she asks, “What’s a hymen?” Tired of being rebuked by her mother who throws out her age-inappropriate garb and the blonde wig, she runs away and crashes at her father’s house. He is in the lower ranks of the village’s social order but determined to see that Wen get justice. Except for the prosecution attorney and Wen’s father, everybody seems willing to let bygone’s be bygone, especially since challenging the authority of the police commissioner leads up a blind alley. Even the parents of Wen’s friend are ready to accept his promise of a payoff in exchange for dropping the case.

If the story sounds like it is the Chinese counterpart to #MeToo, that is only part of the story. It is equally the story about those millions of workers, both men and women, who lack the protections afforded those with proper identification. In effect, they are internal undocumented workers. Known as the hukou system, it serves as both a social security number and an internal passport. Lacking proper documents, a migrant worker suffers super-exploitation in much the same way undocumented workers suffer in the USA. In Beijing, there have been raids on neighborhoods where migrants live that are as vicious as those on the refugee camps in France. The NY Times reported on November 30, 2017:

“Starting from today, demolish what can be demolished, don’t wait until tomorrow,” Wang Xianyong, a district official in southern Beijing, said in a speech to officials that leaked onto the internet. “If it’s demolished today, then won’t you be able to get a good night’s sleep?”

Initially, city leaders ignored the complaints from the displaced migrants. But as images of expelled workers dragging their belongings along streets on freezing nights appeared on social media, they ignited an unusually strong public backlash. Even some state-run news outlets have chimed in to criticize the rushed demolitions.

In the press notes for “Angels Wear White”, the director recounts her inspiration for making the film:

Once during a scouting trip, I saw a young girl, 8 or 9 years old, playing alone on a long flight of steps against a hilltop. It was approaching dusk and the area was deserted. The girl was happy to see us and volunteered to be our model as we shot videos of the area. She told me that her parents, migrant workers from a faraway province, were still at work; that her home was in a basement at the bottom of the hill; that she had no friends. She didn’t want to see us leave, and asked if we’d be back the next day. Are the young girls fine? I often wonder.

The film opened today at the Metrograph, NYC May 4 and will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall on May 18.

2 Comments »

  1. Great review! I’m going to share it on my site – scheduled to post on Sunday.

    Comment by W Krischke — May 10, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

  2. […] via Angels Wear White — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by 嘉年华 (Angels Wear White) – Gonnawatchit — May 13, 2018 @ 5:59 pm


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