Vivian Qu's Angels Wear White follows the ebb and flow of a Chinese coastal town with the telling simplicity of neorealism, even the surreal sight of an absurdly tall statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic subway grate pose looming over a tourist beach. Qu and cinematographer Benoit Dervaux keep the camera at ground level as Mia (Wen Qi) marvels at towering high heels held on by delicate straps, the toenails painted a reflective red. She's interrupted by giggling schoolgirls taking selfies, and encounters the 12-year-olds later at the glossy Warmness Motel, where a suspicious Mia checks in their companion, a prominent local official.
Writer/director Qu (Trap Street) doesn't show the rape of Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Xin (Jiang Xinyue), but spends the rest of this delicate drama revealing its impact. The commissioner uses his political connections to suppress the sexual assault charge, and tries to buy off the families. Corruption and self-interest rule rather than justice, so the stunned, ashamed Wen and hesitant Mia, a resilient teen working illegally, don’t initially trust a compassionate female attorney. They’d already received disquieting responses from Wen’s mother, who blames her daughter’s alluring femininity, and Mia’s co-worker, who views flirting as strategic manipulation and youthful bodies as a valuable commodity.
Qu unpacks much that matters in Angels Wear White, including the abuse of power and importance of status and wealth in Chinese society, but her most thoughtful, nuanced observations involve female sexuality. The women in white -- Marilyn's delightful abandonment of propriety, brides photographed on the beach in elaborate gowns and flowing veils -- offer competing visions, neither of which provides these struggling girls with an understanding of their true self-worth.