Voices is a Radii series providing on-the-ground insights into contemporary Chinese culture from people at its front lines.

The reasons I booked a ticket for Angels Wear White were its good reviews, and because of the recent discussions about sexual assault (not to mention similar conversations over the last few years). There wasn’t a solemn atmosphere surrounding the film’s poor distribution in theaters until the RYB Kindergarten scandal broke out last week. After that, audiences put on thick coats and stepped into the frozen Beijing weather before stepping into another grimness. After the film ended, I didn’t hear any clear sounds besides scattered applause, a rustling sob, and comments about the real-life scandal in low voices.

Before we graduated from college as Film and Television majors, my friends and I always talked about what kinds of films we were going to shoot. We talked about being unrestrained, about having a strong sense of social responsibility, about wanting to do something meaningful in “this place.”

Now we live in this giant, stuffy, fast-moving plot of land, rushing toward each of our own “life goals.” Whenever something terrible happens in the world, we check up on each other and exchange sighs. But it seems that all these emotional outbursts, compared to the trivialities of everyday life, don’t add up to much. No one really wants to abandon their “self,” or admit we don’t even have a clear idea of what the “self” is. No matter what “this place” becomes, we’ll still live a passable life, which eventually has nothing to do with the “self” at all.

Cultural Reactions to Beijing RYB Kindergarten Abuse Scandal

In this regard, I give Angels Wear White a full score. You can say that it’s full of symbolic expressions, though the technique of expression isn’t quite smooth. The characters were not fleshed out enough, and the acting was a little exaggerated. But it was so real, not only because it’s based on an actual case, but also because each character in the film exists around us: the cowardly father; the hysterical mother; the cruel, grey-faced policeman; the front-desk girl with flickering eyes; the gangster boy with a glib tongue; the unyielding girl and her classmate, whose existence is barely noticed by those around them; and the boss, Liu, whom the audience can never see clearly, nor remember what he looks like.

These people glide by us every day. They have a lot on their minds, or their hearts have been hollowed out. They all surface after a mass incident. Until then, no one would know if they’d ever been assaulted, or what kind of secrets they had buried. If there was no film like Angels Wear White, the dark memories of this incident, or of what actually happened to many people watching the film, would disappear forever, and most people would keep thinking, “all I can do is survive and keep moving,” to the point they’d doubt if things like this ever actually happen.

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This year I’ve had the privilege of producing a podcast with a large online following. My co-host and I invited listeners to email in their secrets, things they’re afraid to tell anyone. I was shocked — though perhaps subconsciously prepared — to find that more than 20% of the emails we received were about being sexually assaulted, directly or indirectly. I couldn’t say much, but I replied to these emails now and then, sitting at my table with deep sadness. I felt useless, and really lucky — we’re living in such a dangerous world, and I am a blessed one who survives. Many others, like Lily or Xinxin in Angels Wear White, either get drunk and cry, hoping “not to be a woman again in the next life,” or choose to lie to themselves: “the doctor said we’re fine.”

Still from Angels Wear White (China Daily)

Most people don’t have the guts to escape from their lives, like Xiaomi in the film. We are not in a position to ask them to do so.

I agree with what many people have said, that this is just another emotional vent, one among many in a wide range, and one that will last ten days or fewer. In an environment where such words don’t echo, the “self” is weak. Even a small, critical success like Angels Wear White needs to navigate so many twists and turns and countless lies and reproaches to slowly push things forward.

The important point about Angels Wear White is not what kind of film it is, but how many people are willing to produce and watch this type of film. When the event only exists as words, it can be misinterpreted in numerous, demonizing ways. But when it’s presented as images, we can at least spend two hours thinking about what exactly is happening in the world around us. It will be forgotten, but never erased.

Translated by Fan Shuhong

Cover image: Toronto International Film Festival