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Bearing Witness

A vital figure in Chinese independent cinema, producer-writer-director Vivian Qu tells NewsChina about her latest hard-hitting drama, Angels Wear White

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

Vivian Qu is not a household name in China. But hip young film buffs know her as an impressive and adroit art-house film-maker. This year, Qu has moved viewers at home and abroad with her second directorial feature, Angels Wear White. A multilayered social critique, the drama boldly explores child sex abuse, misogyny and corruption in Chinese society. 
The movie premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, where it was the only entry by a female director. Qu is China’s first female director to gain a Venice Competition berth since Liu Miaomiao with An Innocent Babbler in 1993. The film also won her the Best Director Award at the 54th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.
Angels Wear White’s Chinese name is Jia Nian Hua, which means “carnival.” “We are living in a carnivalesque time. Everyone clamors around all day long as if riding a roller coaster. We keep running forward, so fast that when something wrong is happening around us, no one cares to take the time to correct it,” Qu told NewsChina.  

A Social Critique 

In Qu’s film, which takes place in a southern coastal resort town, two 12-year-old schoolgirls are sexually assaulted in a seaside motel by a middle-aged man, who is the town’s district commissioner. The only witness to the brutal act is the motel cleaner, Mia, an underage migrant worker who does not have ant proper identification documents. 
It was challenging for Qu to get the story’s narrative perspective right. She refused to use the omniscient point of view to tell the story, for such a perspective usually tells audiences the whole truth. But, in real life, Qu said, the truth is usually known only by a few. 
The story is largely narrated from the point of view of two underage characters: Xiaowen, one the victims, and Mia, the witness. With few adults to turn to, both girls have to find their own way out. 
Xiaowen lives with her divorced mother, who appears to care more about smoking and clubbing than about her young daughter. Through a surveillance camera, Mia sees the district commissioner force himself into the two girls’ room. Instinctively, she records everything with her mobile phone. After the assault, Xiaowen’s mother hysterically cuts short her beautiful long hair, tears up her daughter’s colorful dresses, and harshly accuses her of using her looks to be sexually seductive. The girl runs away from home, sleeps rough on the streets and seeks solace from her friendship with Xinxin, the other victim. 
The second protagonist, the 15-year-old motel worker Mia, has lied about her age to get the job. As the news of the sexual assault case spreads, the hotel’s managers try to cover up the evidence. In fear of losing her job, Mia says nothing about what she saw at the start of the investigation. But her knowledge of the case still gets her into trouble. 
Angels does not shy away from the subject of collusion between police and officials, depicting police attempting to cover up the crime: later in the story, police force the two victims to take another medical examination. A sham, they claim it finds no evidence of sexual assault. 
The cast is mostly female, and a towering statue of Marilyn Monroe standing astride the promenade is a recurring motif in the film. Qu told press that the movie is essentially about women, and society’s perceptions of them.  

The filmmaker said she drew inspiration for the story from real life. Although not explicitly stated, settings and details of the story allude to a notorious child sexual assault case in Wanning city of Hainan Province in 2013, in which a school principal and a local housing administration bureau official sexually molested six schoolgirls, aged between 11 and 14, in a hotel. 

It pains Qu that a sense of numbness is growing among the public toward social injustice. 
“This numbness worries me a lot. How could people be so numb towards something so evil? I cannot allow myself to stand by and do nothing. Not only do I want to tell this story, but I also want to find a particular storytelling perspective that lets me examine our responsibility as bystanders,” Qu told NewsChina. 
The original script for the movie was in fact more bitter and pointed. To placate the Chinese censors, many filmed scenes were not included in the final version. “If the work had been filmed 100 percent according to the original script, it wouldn’t have got a pass to the cinema,” a member of Angels’ filmmaking team told our reporter.  

Controlled but Sympathetic 

Lots of blank space and ellipses have been created in Angels Wear White. A film about the horrors of a child sexual abuse cover-up, Angels leaves scenes of rape, violence and corruption implied, rather than explicitly stated. The story focuses on the apparently quiet but complicated aftermath for the victim, Xiaowen and the witness Mia. The crime itself, from Qu’s perspective, is not the film’s focus, and even the face of the perpetrator is blurred. 
“Understatement is highly artistic,” Qu said. In her eyes, Robert Bresson is a master of what she calls “filmic ellipses.” “In his minimalistic films, through ellipses, Bresson manages to convey whatever is essential.” 
“A good film should not fatigue the audience. Every scene of my film contains information that I hope to convey to audiences. If the key information has already been given, other unnecessary elements – be it an extra scene or one second of a shot – will be cut without exception. Such control of expression is my aesthetic,” Qu told NewsChina. 
Distinct from other, more intensely emotional films with similar themes, Angels is narrated in a quiet and even tone, without loud cries or angry yells. One moment does stand out – a scene in which Xiaowen’s father becomes infuriated when he hears about the test results saying his daughter has not been assaulted – yet this moment is demonstrated in a short, full shot.
“Controlled but sympathetic” is the effect Qu strives for, in an echo of her favorite directors Béla Tarr and Mikio Naruse.
The sympathy, she says, does not rely on gushing emotions, expressive performances or dramatic background music, but lies in every exquisitely designed shot, every simple and honest expression and naturalistic performance. 
Qu developed a habit in the course of making the film. She would stare at the young waiters and waitresses in restaurants and inquire about their age. They usually answered the same: they were above 18. Mia lies in the same way. 
“Children are a mirror of adults. They watch and imitate adult behavior, no matter whether it’s good or bad,” she said.  

An Observer 

Qu was born and raised in Beijing. After graduating from the prestigious Peking University with a degree in biology she went on to study art history in New York for six years. 
“If I hadn’t returned to China to do film production, I would probably be working at a museum right now, studying ancient art,” the director said, smiling. 
She enjoyed the rich artistic environment in New York, where she attended numerous film exhibitions, lectures and salons. 
“MoMA has the largest collection of arthouse movies in the world. It regularly holds arthouse and independent film screenings. It was there that I realized how splendid a world films have created,” Qu said.
 “But to get a real understanding of movies, one still needs practice,” Qu told our reporter. And that was the main reason for Qu’s return to China in 2003.
Since 2007, Qu has produced a series of independent films, including Night Train (2007), Knitting (2008), Longing for the Rain (2013) and Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014). The latter won the Golden Bear for Best Film, alongside the Silver Bear for Best Actor, at the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin in 2014.
Qu has gained a reputation within the industry but insists on keep a certain distance from the “show business” world. Her media profile is low-key, and she refuses to attend grand celebrity parties. “They won’t give you anything except a feeling of emptiness,” she said. “Instead, I feel rich and full when I read, watch films, observe and pay attention to ordinary people’s lives and the society we are living in.”
In 2013, Qu made her directorial feature debut, Trap Street, which tells a story of a young digital map-maker who finds his computerized maps have been mysteriously altered – after he becomes infatuated with a young woman who works for China’s intelligence service on a street that does not officially exist. 
Qu uses the metaphor of the invisible street to symbolize “those prevalent but implicit secrets of the changing reality of modern China.” She would like the film to be seen as a meditation on modern society instead of a simple love story. 
Qu has faced challenges common to arthouse directors, in fundraising, shooting and audience receptions. But most challenging, she says, is gaining the trust of others. Yet she remains optimistic and believes making good quality films is the key. 

As a vital figure in China’s independent cinema scene, Qu weaves her social observations and concerns into her works. She hopes her new film will generate a discussion on sexual education and child protection in her home country. 
“We are trying to tell educators that sexual education is important at an early age, because children need to learn how to protect themselves, and because parents are not always around,” Qu told Reuters in an interview.