‘THE WIDOWED WITCH”— Unexpectedly Powerful and Fiercely Unpredictable

Unexpectedly Powerful and Fiercely Unpredictable
Amos Lassen    

Director Cai Chengjie’s debut feature is, like its titular protagonist, unexpectedly powerful and fiercely unpredictable. Er Hao (Tian Tian) has been labelled as cursed by the local villagers. She has been widowed three times and is preoccupied with a rogue fireworks explosion, a tagalong teenager, and an army of crazed local men who can’t keep their hands off her. She was turned away when she sought shelter from her neighbors and was forced to take up residence in a cold camper van. Er Hao’s future looks as bleak as the stark, snowy, winter countryside.

A series of fluke changes in fortune causes Er Hao to embrace the mystical identity her villagers have assigned to her. As a sort of modern shaman, she steers superstitions into small subversions, helping others who once shunned her and proving that to survive as a woman is a kind of magic. The film is filled with absurdist humor and beautiful visual styles, the film encompasses both magical realism and social satire. Set in Hebei province in northern China, Er Hou (wakes up after the explosion of a fireworks factory to find herself being sexually abused by a relative. The explosion took the life of her factory-owner husband but because it was an unauthorized factory, Er Hou received no compensation and has nowhere to live. She sets out on an odyssey across a largely frozen landscape to visit various family members and the families of her numerous (deceased) husbands. Along the way she picks up her husband’s mute younger brother Shitao (Wen Xinyu). Because of her bad record with husbands, the suspicious locals consider her to be a witch (or shaman). Er Hou realizes that there are certain benefits to this reputation and she plays along to secure food and accommodation only to find that various magical things begin to happen. She cured the paralysis of an ageing relative by accidentally leaving him boiling away in a bath overnight. Eventually, however, Er Hou realizes that in today’s China even magic may not be able to cure all ills. Director Cai Chengjie  manages to raise a range of issues about Chinese society, including sexual inequality and abuse, and the sale of children which are rarely seen in mainstream Chinese cinema. Tian Tian is wonderful in the title role and the film looks magical as well. It switches from black and white to color and back and uses color to highlight images within a black and white frame. Er Hao is not only said to be a witch but seems to possess powers that can turn things around – girl embryo is a boy upon birth, and gold is found in the region. Soon, the village is willing to offer Er Hao shelter and food in exchange for her shaman services.   The cinematography by Feng Jiao is especially striking. Cai favors static long takes, which often cover the whole scene. The frame is composed interestingly, often with one of the speakers or the protagonist hidden by a door frame or a shadow. Er Hao realizes that by changing fate with her shaman acts, the law of cause and effect makes other things change as well – and not where she wanted them to go. Some of her well-meaning acts might have tragic consequences.  

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