In the Chinese drama Angels Wear White, screening this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, writer-director Vivian Qu addresses the issue of corruption in contemporary Chinese society. The subject may be familiar to anyone who's kept up with Chinese cinema over the past two decades, but Qu's approach is somewhat novel in that she considers the issue from a female perspective. Angels follows the police investigation of a government official suspected of having sexually assaulted two 12-year-old girls at a seaside motel in the western city of Binhai; rather than focus on the official, Liu (who barely appears), Qu looks at the assault victims as well as the female employees at the motel, who become witnesses in the investigation. All the principal characters are exploited over the course of the film, and their struggles show how women are particularly vulnerable to abuse in modern-day China.
Qu opens the film by introducing Mia, a young motel worker, as she goes about her daily routine. Mia enjoys living in Binhai; the warm weather appeals to her, and she likes interacting with tourists. Her work at the motel pays little but covers her basic needs. Mia claims to be 18 but looks significantly younger; Qu raises the possibility that the young woman has lied about her age to secure employment. The director also reveals that Mia lacks a government ID, which means she gets paid under the table. Her situation may be precarious, but she can get by so long as she doesn't draw attention to herself. Mia is working the motel's reception desk on the night Liu shows up with the two girls; rather than question the official about his relationship to the kids, Mia, hoping to maintain her low profile, checks him in.
Later that evening, Mia watches on the motel's closed-circuit security video as Liu violently drags the girls from the hallway into his room. On a whim, she records the interaction on her cell phone, little realizing the importance of her stolen video. When police show up the next day to investigate, Mia denies knowing anything about what happened. She suspects that she could lose her job for admitting that criminal activity took place at the motel, and her suspicions are confirmed when her boss threatens to fire her if she divulges any information. The cops lay off the employees for a while, but a female lawyer representing the girls' families senses the staff may be hiding something and starts showing up at the motel to grill Mia.
Meanwhile the two girls at the center of the investigation face problems of their own. Wen, the more assertive of them, is blamed by her mother for the incident at the motel, whereas Xin, the second girl, is pressured by her parents not to comply with the investigation because Liu is her godfather and can help the family financially. The girls' friendship disintegrates under the strain of the situation, as each worries that the other will get her in trouble. Qu realizes their conflict with tremendous sympathy, emphasizing Wen and Xin's vulnerability to the adults' pressure. As Angels proceeds, one comes to regard the girls as victims not only of sexual assault but of a social structure in which the rights of children count for very little.
Shooting largely with a handheld camera, Qu generates a jittery energy that makes the characters' stress palpable. This feeling escalates as the investigation closes in around the witnesses, forcing them to compromise their morals to protect themselves. In the movie's second half Mia tries to blackmail Liu by threatening to give her cell-phone video to the police. She intends to use the payment to buy a state ID card on the black market, which would enable her to seek better employment in Binhai. Her actions mirror those of Xin's parents, who also try to exploit Liu's guilt for financial gain. These developments conjure up an atmosphere of pervasive desperation, which Qu presents as the inevitable result of a corrupt culture. v