Angels Wear White: Director Vivian Qu Discusses Her Hard-Hitting Drama And The Complexity Of Social Justice

Angels Wear White is the second work by Chinese writer-director Vivian Qu—a modern-day noir that tells the story of two young victims of rape. Although very critical of the Chinese government, the film avoids the suggestion that problems of sexual violence are solely to be blamed on the police.

Rather, it attempts to show the complexity and intricacies behind the issue. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Benoît Dervaux, Angels Wear White is at once luminous and dark. The camera’s movements are calm and invisible. Each scene is almost entirely from the perspective of its protagonists and the director develops the story in incremental layers, without exaggeration or overemphasizing effects. There are no visual effects at work here, just plain, simple and frank camerawork. Angels Wear White first screened at Venice Film Festival, where it was very well received. MovieMaker spoke with the director following its screening at Toronto International Film Festival.

Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was the source of your inspiration for the movie? 

Vivian Que (VQ): I’ve been paying attention to these news stories about young teenagers being assault victims. Sometimes you see that they also participate in crime so I felt, with the fast development of the country, there seem to be a lot of problems with the younger generation right now. That’s because often their parents move to a different city to work in order to bring money back home, and these children are left behind by themselves or are cared for by their grandparents. Oftentimes they lack proper education or they just run away from school. Also because of the internet now they don’t have the guidance of their parents. Kids just look at things on the internet, learn something, and try to copy them. I felt like there’s a big, important issue surrounding the young generation now, so I wanted to do a story about that.

MM: How did you make your young actress familiar with such a delicate issue when she’s performing in a movie about rape at the age of only 14 or 15?

VQ: Zhou Meijun plays the youngest one, the victim who is only a schoolgirl. At that time, she was not even 12 years old, so of course she didn’t understand anything about rape and these things like sexual assault; so we did not touch upon this issue with her at all. She didn’t read the script; we only gave her things scene by scene. Instead, we focused more on her relationship with her parents, which was also how the film developed because, you know, the first scene happened, and it’s all about her dealing with her mother and father and finding her own position in a family that’s falling apart. So basically, we focused just on that, to discuss with her the relationship with her parents. She’s from a very happy family, so she didn’t have to solve any difficult problems in her real life. But we tried to explain to her that some other girls may not be as lucky as she is, and sometimes they have to choose to live with only one parent. For example, “If you have to choose between your father and mother, you will have to make that decision; they cannot both be there. How would you feel?” We tried to inspire her with these kinds of feelings but we were limited to only these kinds of emotions that she could understand and weren’t harmful.

Wen Qi as Mia in Angels Wear White

MM: How did you choose the actresses?

VQ: We had an open audition for, it must have been over a thousand children. They just came in, we gave them impromptu tests and exercises to work on. The two leads, the slightly older one—the one working in the motel—she already had played in two television series so she had some experience. She was taller and more mature than the other kids who came, so I decided relatively quickly on using her for the role of Mia. But also, just to be sure, we invited all of the adult actors to come in and rehearse with her just to be sure that she wasn’t frightened when playing in front of an adult actor, and I’m sure that these actors all gave her very good feedback. For the younger girl, she had absolutely no experience prior to playing this role. She also came in quite late, because she’s really the foundation of this whole film. You have to believe in her; you have to trust her; you have to like her in order for you to like and believe in the film. It took me a very, very long time to find her. When she finally came, she didn’t know how to act; she didn’t know how to do these exercises that we gave her. For a whole day, we tried and didn’t succeed much, and then I let her go. But for some reason I just couldn’t forget her face, so I told my assistant to call her father and ask for her to come back the next morning. They were already on the train back to their hometown since they don’t live in Beijing. Her father was supportive, and they took the early train the next morning back. From that point on, we gave her two months of training. We took it scene by scene, and I tried to inspire her—tried to let her find the feeling so that whatever she gave was really truthful. There’s nothing like acting in it; it’s completely genuine so that’s why we were so extremely happy with her performance.

MM: The rape scene involves the two young girls but most of the movie is about one protagonist. Was there any specific reason behind this acting decision? 

VQ: I wanted one girl to be my protagonist, but the other girl is a reference, especially at the end where you see the parents—the family—they tend to treat this differently. This girl, my protagonist, she’s more sensitive, she’s more alert, and she’s from a broken family, so she’s constantly seeking love from her parents. On the other hand, the other family represents the senseless type of parents because oftentimes in China, parents don’t want to talk about this, because they feel it’s shameful. As a result, they take the approach of just trying to forget about it. What they don’t know is that even if at that moment the young girl might seem to be okay, that she’s forgotten about it, and it’s not hurting her anymore, maybe years later this will come back and haunt her. The people around her might be thinking that’s how they should protect her, saying, “Oh, forget about it. Don’t talk about it. It’s nothing.” That isn’t a cure though.

MM: You started your career by producing movies. How was the transition from producing to directing?

VQ: I started as a producer in order to help my friends because at that time it was very difficult to find funding for independent filmmaking. Many young filmmakers at that time had good ideas but didn’t have any resources to get their films made, so I sort of helped my friend—one after another. I realized that if I didn’t stop at some point, I would never be able to make my own film. That’s when I stopped and made my first film. I then produced another film, Black Coal, and now it’s [time for] my second film. The transition is really not that difficult because in independent filmmaking, you have to do pretty much everything. Even as a producer, my goal is really to help people to realize creative ideas. As a director, I fully understand the limitations of what kinds of funds and resources that we can get, so I try to make the best out of the limitations I have. For me, it’s different, but not that different.

MM: This movie has a very critical attitude towards China. How did you fund the project? 

VQ: Independent film is always mostly privately funded. We have Chinese companies or just private investors who fund our films, and we can also apply to foreign foundations. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of those.

MM: When you are making a movie for an international market or festival, does it need to be approved by the government?

VQ: Yeah, and my film is approved, which is a miracle. Every film needs to be approved and sometimes when people don’t care about the domestic market, they don’t direct, but if your investor really cares about the domestic market then you have to get all the papers right.

A scene from Angels Wear White

MM: It appears that the movie is not blaming one sector for what happened.

VQ: That’s because I really think that we see problems in all sectors. I think that in order to bring about change, everyone has to feel the responsibility. It’s not really suggestive that the problem is due only to the police, only the system, only the whatever. It’s no use just to simply blame somebody. I think it’s more constructive if we bring everyone’s attention because I think that in order to change it we need all sectors of society to push forward. It’s a big and complex situation. For example, regarding the legal system, there could be laws to help with the situation, in the police force there could be more training, there could be more done in schools. We have very little education on this matter but we need to have it in order to tell the children how to protect themselves. Then the parents need to feel that they shouldn’t be ashamed to talk to their children about this. I believe that if everyone makes an effort then someday things will be better.

MM: What was your scriptwriting strategy for reaching this goal? Did you, for example, have a conversation with victims of rape as part of the research for this movie? What was the process?

VQ: I didn’t talk directly to the victims, but I talked to psychologists and social workers who spent several years working with victims and lawyers who mostly deal with this underage group. Of course, it was very emotional. I remember one social worker who said that she had worked in this area for two or three years and then had to change to a different kind of environment because it’s just too much to take in. The reported rape cases are really a small percentage of what happens. It’s a very difficult thing because even when they try to help, sometimes the parents don’t want help or they don’t quite understand what proper help is so it’s a very difficult task for the social workers and lawyers.

MM: I’ve recently seen more movies that deal with social justice in China. In the past, there were more movies about, for example, kings and dynasties the very bourgeois types of movies. Increasingly now China’s independent directors are becoming interested in social justice, globalization, and its impact. Do you have something to say about this trend?

VQ: There is still a lot of kings and queens because, you know, in the Chinese market now, we produce a thousand films a year, which is a huge jump from before. The independent sector is still relatively small, so the majority of films that we see in Chinese cinemas are comedies, romantic comedies, sort of war epics. These are mostly big-budget commercial films. The films that talk about social injustice are still a very small portion but I think that there have always been young filmmakers concerned about social conditions and trying to address these issues. It just goes away because sometimes you encounter problems of censorship or financial problems so it’s not easy to make those films. However, with the growth of the big market there are always opportunities to find ways to finance your films if it’s not too expensive.

MM: In terms of the domestic market, as you said, most of the movies are about kings and queens. Does your movie have its own domestic appeal?

VQ: We still need to wait and see when it’s finally released but I was really surprised and encouraged at the same time because for distribution we had to show the film to distribution companies. So far we’ve shown it to maybe around fifty people. The film also screened in Venice and a lot of Chinese journalists came to see it and then the response was extremely, extremely positive. I was really surprised. The thing is that althought we don’t talk about it much there had been things happening, popping up here and there, so people will really feel that it concerns everyone. It’s about our next generation and how are they doing, how are we protecting them. There are many, many discussions going on but somehow it’s often been hushed. Something happens and there is a heated discussion but then after a few days calms down. That’s what’s happening now. When people saw this, everyone was so excited, and they were like, “Finally, we have a film that addresses this. Finally, we can talk about it.”

Among young people, all of them felt that this is a very important subject matter that needs to be addressed and there hasn’t been a single Chinese film dealing with this subject matter before people are very enthusiastic about this one. However, this does not necessarily mean that the box office will be good. At at least the film professionals and journalists have been very, very happy to see this film. 

MM: There are some interesting props and costumes in the movie. One of them, for example, is the big sculpture of Marilyn Monroe shown at the beginning. What was the process for picking up these items?

VQ: When I was writing the script, I read a piece of news that in a small Southern Chinese city they had built a gigantic statue of Marilyn Monroe but tore it down after six months because the skirt was flying too high. They even had pictures of the truck taking the statue away. People put a banner around it saying “Marilyn, don’t go.” I was really surprised to see this news and I gave a lot of thought to why these people thousands of miles away from where Marilyn used to be would feel so attached to a statue of her. What does Marilyn mean to them? I did a quick survey among my friends, especially female friends, asking “What is Marilyn to you?” Of course, most of the answers that I got were very typical. She was beautiful, sexy, blah, blah, blah. Only one girl said, “She represents everything and anything but love.” When I looked at the script that I was working on, I said “That’s my story!” So, you know, there’s a very strong connection between the statue and the story that I wanted to tell, so I decided to integrate it into my film. This is the most objectified image of Western culture, but a Chinese girl from a remote town couldn’t know all of this. She must have laid a very innocent gaze on the Marilyn statue so that’s how I wanted to start my film – with this very innocent gaze. She was looking at this gigantic statue without knowing the social context. She just thinks it’s a beautiful, beautiful woman with beautiful skin, beautiful feet, beautiful shoes, beautiful—wow! And then the skirt is flying! So that all of that gaze is innocent.

MM: I’m also interested in the stylistic choices that you made for this movie, the camera movement is very clam and invisible.

VQ: I think that because the two protagonists are young girls. I wanted to be intimate and close to them but not intrusive. For that reason I didn’t want to work with still shots or various sort of cold distant kinds of shots. I wanted to be relatively close to them but not very subjective by showing too much emotion. I wanted to be calm, invisible, with a very gentle touch on them, so this was the main stylistic decision. Of course, I really like Benoit’s camerawork from his previous films as well as his experience working with young actors. For example, Rosetta was 14 at that time, and the boy on the bike was very young too. I was very impressed by his work, so that’s why I approached him and asked him if he wanted to do this. He read the script and he liked it so he decided to come be a part of the film. Basically, we just decided on how we wanted to shoot and how the distance should be with the girls so then we focused mostly just on the two girls. Each scene is pretty much from their own perspective and we tried to develop the story level by level, without exaggeration or overemphasizing effects. There are no effects at all but rather just very plain, simple, honest camerawork. MM

Angels Wear White will screen at the London and Hamburg Film Festivals in October, courtesy of 22 Hours and Mandrake Films. All images courtesy of 22 Hours.

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