The Widowed Witch (China, 2017)

Er Hao (Tian Tian) is called a witch for having three husbands die upon her. When the last one dies in an explosion at the fireworks factory that he and Er Hao were running, she just about survives in a semi-comatose state. Unable to move, she is taken to her inlaws’ house where she is raped by her late husband’s relative. Er Hao hits the road accompanied by her husband’s mute little brother Shitao. They have nowhere to go, and no one is willing to help them. But then strange things start to happen. 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.

In Cai Chengjie’s debut feature The Widowed Witch, the story of the woman getting cold treatment is accentuated by shooting during the winter season with the sound of snow streaking under the protagonist’s boots making for a simple but effective soundscape. This physical coldness is matched by the emotional coldness of the villagers. The few fantastic visions by the protagonist – a girl turning into a fox – are used sparingly, to make things ambiguous for the viewer, as if the woman’s journey ever even happened.

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. The film is mostly in black and white, with just partial color sometimes popping up in one part of the frame. This might be colorful string lights, fire by the stove, or the New Year’s fireworks (which killed Er Hao’s husband). Like these little spots of light, warmth and happiness are just little moments in the lives of Er Hao’s and the mute Shitao.

The morality play goes almost a classical circle from one New Year to the next one. The first lesson is how the villagers’ treatment of Er Hao depends on how well her shaman acts work. But later 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.

The Widowed Witch was awarded the Grand Prix at the FIRST International Film Festival Xining in 2017 (where the film played under the title “Shaman”). Since then, the film was re-edited for the Rotterdam Film Festival 2018 where it won the Hivos Tiger Award. This festival success is not surprising as The Widowed Witch is an astounding artistic achievement.

The Widowed Witch is part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.