This is the second time Vivian Qu has brought a film to the Toronto Film Festival. She was last here in 2014 with Trap Bear, her feature film directorial debut. This year she brings Angels Wear White, a multilayered social critique of contemporary women in China, something we rarely see in film. Angels Wear White takes us inside modern-day China where two young girls are assaulted and the subsequent societal reactions are at times hard to watch. I caught up with Qu from Toronto to talk about where abuse education should begin and working with underage actresses after the film bowed at the festival.
One thing I found really interesting was how during the attacks the perpetrator is never seen. Talk about why you wanted to shoot it that way?
I didn’t want to see his face. My film focuses on how society deals with these issues and women’s part in society. The perpetrator isn’t that important in that sense.
Angels Wear White highlights a problem in society where blame is too often assigned to the victim. How prevalent is this in Chinese society?
A lot of these things happen and then it gets hushed and doesn’t get addressed properly. As a society we are all responsible for these things happening because there’s not enough going on in the schools, teaching the girls about how to protect themselves. Are they doing enough to help these children when they’ve been attacked? Also, in the home, the parents need to educate themselves because they shouldn’t feel the shame they tend to feel.
On that, there’s the interesting female lawyer in your film who is not really heard, but who’s trying to give the girl a voice who also isn’t heard. Talk about that character and what she represents.
She represents the courageous people in our society. When the system isn’t doing what it should be doing, there are individuals who are doing a lot more. In a lot of these cases, there are many people like her, there are social workers who step in at an early stage to help these victims and give them a channel to pursue the cases. She’s a realistic portrayal of these people in society.
Your opening features a Marilyn Monroe sculpture in a park. It’s an interesting symbol.
When I was writing the script I read that a small town in Southern China had built a statue of Marilyn Monroe but after six months it was torn down because her skirt was flying too high. I saw pictures of the statue being dismantled and being taken away on a truck, but I also saw people with banners that said, “Don’t Go Marilyn.” I thought that was a really interesting image. So, this small town is thousands of miles away from Hollywood and probably didn’t know too much about who Marilyn Monroe is, so why was there this strong attachment? I actually did this small survey among my female friends asking what Marilyn meant to them. Most answered that she was beautiful or sexy, but one person replied she represented everything but love. That reply forced me to look at my story, and that is the story, so I thought I needed to incorporate it into the script.
The image of Marilyn in that pose is one of the most iconic and most objectified images in the Western world, so this young child who sees this statue in the film and gazes on it is innocent. She looks at it with purity and innocence.
Your actresses are phenomenal to watch. Talk about working with them being so young and the care you must take in shielding them from such a tough topic. What guidance do you give them?
When I was writing the script I wrote it with the things that the girls could understand and act. For Mia, she only got her half of the script. For her, it’s just playing a young migrant girl working to get some money. She thinks she understands the rules of the adult world, but in reality, she’s still just a child. That’s what I wanted her to focus on.
For Wen, she was 11-years-old when she played the role. We didn’t give her the script, we only gave it to her bit by bit. She had no acting experience at all so we did a little bit of training with her, and when we gave her the scenes, we focused on the relationship she had with her parents because that’s something she could understand. We protected her from the real theme of the film and in real life she’s also a very happy child in a happy family. We tried to make her understand that not every child is as fortunate as she is. We were thrilled with her performance.
What was the biggest challenge for you?
Working with the girls was the biggest challenge.
How do they see your film in China? Will they see it as a criticism of society?
We filmed it in China and people who are in the distribution company actually are going to release the film in China. They’re young and in their twenties and the reception was great.
When the film premiered in Venice, there were a lot of Chinese journalists who were also young and they welcomed it because they felt there hadn’t been a film like this before. Also, the film will be released in China so that’s quite phenomenal. There’s certainly been discussions. Young men who saw the film actually refused to believe that such stories could happen and what they did was they went online and read that these stories actually happened. So, they came back to me and said, “Every parent should see this film.”