CHINA’S MISSED #METOO
Break the silence” was the name of the campaign launched in China last year to promote the film Angels Wear White, which tells the powerful story, based on true events, of a cover-up after a powerful Chinese police commissioner rapes two schoolgirls.
The timing was eerie. Barely a month later, the #MeToo movement, and the allegations against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, would spark a huge debate about sexual assault around the world.
That was what Chinese director Vivian Qu hoped to do with her film in China. Instead, attempts to expose the sexual harassment that’s rife everywhere, from universities to the film business, were greeted by a deafening silence—and a state media blackout.
China’s authoritarian government is so wary of any kind of activism that it locked up five young women’s rights lawyers in 2015. But there’s also a pervasive culture of silence over sexual harassment and assault.
“In China, when there’s a murder case, everyone talks about it and demands justice, but when it comes to rape, no one does,” says Qu. “I have no answer as to why there is silence, but what I want to do is pose the question.” She does that powerfully in Angels Wear White, which won Qu the ‘Silver Peacock’ award for best director at the International Film Festival of India in Goa in November last year.
Angels Wear White tells the story of two schoolgirls and the aftermath of a sexual assault in a hotel room by a police official. It explores the role of bystanders—at the centre
of the story is a girl receptionist who is reluctant to report the case—and the parents’ fight for justice.
Qu couldn’t travel to India because the film was simultaneously playing at no less than six festivals, from Venice to Japan and Taiwan. But she says that’s a “huge regret”, given that it was her love for the poems of Rabindranath Tagore that brought her to the arts: “I fell in love with Tagore when I first read his poetry on a spring afternoon in university.” So naturally, she was drawn to the films of Satyajit Ray as a student in New York.
This is a #MeToo with Chinese characteristics. The Communist revolution shattered feudal norms and promised equality for women, as well as the masses. In the three decades since China’s opening up, Qu’s film suggests, the old ideas about women have returned as individual freedoms have expanded.
“When I was growing up, we were taught girls were equal to boys, women hold up half the sky, and the focus was on getting knowledge,” says Qu. “In today’s society, the focus seems to have changed a little bit and in some ways it’s similar to a 100 years ago, where all you need to care about is to find a good husband or marry into a good family.”
That’s just one of the ways the film will resonate with Indians.
Chinese director Vivian Qu (left); and a still from her film