Chinese filmmaker Vivian Qu was thousands of miles away and a couple years in advance of the current #metoo movement when she started making Angels Wear White. And yet, the film’s theatrical release couldn’t be more timely with its overarching themes of power, corruption, and gender-based violence as seen and experienced by young girls.

The only film by a female director selected in competition at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, Angels Wear White follows Mia, a young hotel worker in a small beach resort town who witnesses the sexual assault of two middle-school girls by a high-ranking police official. An entrenched web of forces is in place to protect the official, as females throughout the narrative—Mia, the girls, the hotel receptionist, and an attorney trying to get justice—are continuously thwarted or presented with impossible choices to change their circumstances.

"You cannot control what other people think or how they look at films, so you need to have a unique voice."

The film’s slyly anti-authoritarian message is impressive in its quiet power, particularly as it came out of the highly controlled and often censored Chinese media environment. Shot by frequent Dardennes DP Benoît Dervaux, it embraces the washed-out palette of its seaside setting, and is framed in such a way that we feel how each character is trapped in their own reality. No Film School spoke with Qu about independent film in China, how to work with very young actors on sensitive topics, and more.

No Film School: Is there an independent scene in China in terms of other filmmakers making independent work and audiences to view it?

Vivian Qu: There is definitely an independent film scene, but it has changed quite a bit since the late '90s. That's really when the movement started. Because right now the Chinese commercial film market has grown really fast. Most young people, now when they graduate from film school they have the opportunity to immediately make big budget commercial films. 

So for independent filmmakers, I think it's a bit smaller than before. But, still there are young people trying to make independent films. But there are problems with financing, and censorship.

For audience,  it's still relatively small. Because traditionally, we don't have art house cinema. Art house films had to compete with the big blockbusters. Basically, you really see them in cinemas but maybe after a week, it's gone. I think a lot of people are trying to change this. Starting this year, we want to have some cinemas dedicated to art house films. But this is only starting. 

We're hoping in the next few years we'll be able to see more art house films in the market. Then we'll for sure know how big the art house audience is. Right now it's unclear, because it's been mixed in the past.

NFS: You mentioned censorship. This film is not very friendly to authorities. What process did you have to go through to get the film out there?

Qu: The producers and myself, we tried to communicate with the authorities about the film, and making sure that they understand the intention is really to draw attention to these important issues regarding young people. They recognize the artistic value of film, and they understand our intention is good. 

Finally, we were able to obtain the approval. We're very happy that it happened. Right now we're looking forward to releasing the film in China. But we'll see how it is received.

"I have many female characters in my film, but to me they're just one woman."

NFS: I interview a lot of filmmakers. Everyone says, "You have to tell the story that only you can tell and that you feel that you need to tell right now."  Why did you feel that this was the story you needed to tell right now?

Qu: Because I've been paying attention to these kinds of cases, situations where young girls are assaulted, and also sometimes when young teenagers participate in some kind of crime. I think it's a problem today happening in China, because of the fast development. Our young people are somewhat left behind because their parents, they tend to move to different cities to work, to make money, but leaving the children in the care of the grandparents or sometimes nobody.

So to me, we're paying a huge price on the development [of the country]. We're only beginning to see problems with this younger generation. This really concerned me, and I felt I really need to talk about it.

NFS: One thing that impressed me about the script is that I felt very sympathetic with all of the female characters, even if I wouldn't have made the same decisions that they made. How did you go about writing a script where your audience would feel for all of these different characters?

Qu: I have many female characters in my film, but to me they're just one woman. Because I think as women growing up in China, but perhaps in the world too, but I'm sure it's in slightly different ways, I think the limitations that we encounter are still more than the choices that we are given. 

One [character] can certainly become another, but by making a certain choice. For example, the school girl could become the migrant girl if she decides to run away from home. The migrant girl who worked in the motel, she could become the receptionist if she decides to stay there, instead of running away again. I think these are all choices that they at one point make. It will take them to one another, and they could become mirrors. 

Also, just the very fact that one is a victim, another could be a witness, and their roles are interchangeable. Because one day you can be only a witness that had nothing to do with this, but another day you could be the victim. I tried to make all these characters relating to each other, so perhaps that's why.

NFS: I never thought about womanhood quite like that, that we could all be interchangeable if we just made different choices.

Qu: Yeah. I think the limitation is still very, very strong even though we are in the 21st century. The truth is that, when we grow up with that kind of information and education of how a woman “should” be, how a woman “should” behave, the choices are given to you. And I think that is really the problem.

Angels Wear WhiteZhou Meijun and Jiang Xinyue in 'Angels Wear White'

NFS: In terms of the film itself, I noticed there's very little music, but a lot of use of environmental sounds. Did you decide that from the beginning or how did that evolve?

Qu: Yeah. Because this is a realistic film and the location is important, so that's why I wanted to really explore the sound, and use it only when it's absolutely necessary. That was a decision since the beginning. Pretty much, all the sound is from the locations. We tried to really explore the sea, the ocean, the wind, the birds, the insects, just everything in nature. 

Also, we used the construction, the man-made sounds, and try to mix them in an organic way to help with the feelings and the emotions of the characters.

NFS: Technically speaking, are the sounds actually from the location, or is it recreated from the location?

Qu: It's a mixture. We built the soundtracks really based on the location sound. That's really what we tried to maintain, to be very truthful to the location. We also added some elements when it's needed. But really, we focus on the location sounds.

"I don't think the issue is where you're from. You just have to make the best film you can."

NFS: In terms of your personal directing style, you had such young actresses dealing with these very adult conditions or situations. How did you communicate with them about the story so that it didn't scare them or turn them off?

Qu: For the motel clerk Mia, we gave her only her half of the script to read, since this is two different story strands. It was only her half that she was given, without telling her too much about the backstory of the young protagonist. I told her, she's too busy to look back at her own life or to pity herself. She needs to save every minute to try to work, to make money, to move forward.

Basically, I wanted the actress to really just focus on these things without thinking too much. Because otherwise with her young age, she might feel pity or sentimentality or something, and that's not what I want. I just wanted her to be tough, to be straightforward. This is how we worked with her. Because she's still at school, so we’d send her to work in the motel to learn to clean the rooms, to fold the sheets. After a few days, even the cleaning lady at the motel believed she was here to apply for a job. Also, the parts that she had to learn to ride the moped, the physicality of the working girls, she had to really learn.

With the youngest girl, Wen, at the time the actress Zhou Meijun was only 11. We didn't give her the script. We didn't tell her what really happened, the theme of the film, because she was not able to understand it, although we communicated this with her parents. But for training her, she had no acting experience prior to making this film. We really just trained her. We gave her some very basic acting training for about two months. But then, we just focused on her relationship with her parents, because this is something she could understand. 

We were very protective of her, and just basically tried to draw her understanding and experience from dealing with parents. Making her understand although she's from a very happy family, there are many other children who might not be as lucky as she is. Sometimes they have to choose one parent only to live with. We tried to tell her to understand how those little girls might feel. She was very good in understanding this, and she was very good in giving very intense performances. Also, the actress who played her mother, we asked her to come into the crew early on to spend time with her, really living like mother and daughter. The scenes with her although very intense, very difficult, she was very quick to get into. 

Angels Wear WhiteZhou Meijun in 'Angels Wear White'

NFS: A lot of our readers are outside of the US or Europe and would probably be interested in hearing your advice on how to get attention in those markets if you are from somewhere else. What advice do you have for other filmmakers who are trying to break out of their country?

Qu: I don't think the issue is where you're from. You just have to make the best film you can. Because all festivals, they look at diverse cities, they look at films from different countries. For example, I heard Venice this year they looked at 2000 films from all over the world. There's no boundary, so to speak. It's not just American films that get noticed. 

You cannot control what other people think or how they look at films, so you need to have a unique voice, unique language, and really make strong stories. You can look at what films are out there. But by imitating others, it's no use, it won't get you anywhere. Because people look at what's unique. If I make a film like another Chinese filmmaker did 10 years ago, they'll be like, "I’ve already shown this before." They won't show it. They want to see, "This is different. We've never seen anything like that," from say China or from whatever country you are from. I think that's really the key.