Review: ‘Angels Wear White’ Is a Searing Tale of Moral Rot in China

Posted May 3, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT

Conventional wisdom holds that a beach town ought to be a pleasant place for a teenager to spend the summer. Mia (Wen Qi), the protagonist of “Angels Wear White,” a searing movie written and directed by Vivian Qu, almost immediately establishes a one-girl counter to this notion. The viewer’s first glimpse of her is ordinary enough.

At the beach in a South China town, she stands under a giant sculpture, unseen in its entirety but clearly of a woman. Mia examines the ankles, the high shoes, the red toenail polish. Then it’s off to work, at a motel called “Warmness.” Her immediate supervisor is an older teenager named Lily, who glams herself up to impress her sometime boyfriend, the petty criminal Jian.

Lily has Mia cover for her as receptionist. One guest is a middle-aged man with two schoolgirls in tow. One of them is wearing a blond wig. They check into separate rooms and the girls order beer delivered to theirs. The next day at school, one of the girls has bruises on the inside of her thigh.

“Angels Wear White” is plotted like a suspense thriller. While the motel’s unctuous sleazeball manager insists to authorities that his security footage is wiped every couple of days, Mia has captured evidence with her phone. She also has that blond wig stashed away.

Mia is in a jam herself. She has no official identification and figures some blackmail might earn her the money to buy a card. In this respect, she’s resourceful, but as it turns out, she’s also terribly naïve. She tries to do business with the puffed-up phony Jian even though she knows he is eager to pimp her out.

Many of the characters, with the exception of the child legal advocate Hao, are up to their necks in squalid corruption. The child rapist is a government big shot with a lot of money. He offers to pay the private school tuition of one of his victims, so long as the family doesn’t sue. Lily and Mia are trapped by the motel manager in a form of indentured servitude, and Lily is so desperate in her relationship with Jian that she submits to hymen-reconstruction surgery.

This all sounds grim, and it is. But the story grabs you. Qu shoots the sturdily constructed scenario with unshowy sharpness. Film critics and viewers in the West tend to sentimentalize feel-good movies from the East, delighting in their ostensible universality. The moral rot and callous corruption depicted in “Angels Wear White” has a particularly bracing effect in part because, cultural specifics aside, the inhumanity on display is hardly alien.

Mia is a poignant character. Near the end of the movie, she tells Hao that she drifted to the town because it’s so warm that even if you’re homeless you can sleep outside. The matter-of-fact way that Wen delivers this observation is heartbreaking. So is the ultimate reveal of the giant sculpture, a metaphoric angel — instantly recognizable in the West — wearing white.

‘Angels Wear White’

Not rated. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.