Review: “The Widowed Witch”

THE WIDOWED WITCH 07_Courtesy of the dGenerate Collection at Icarus Films

by Maya Rudolph

The Widowed Witch (Xiao Gua Fu Cheng Xian Ji) is the debut film by Cai Chengjie and was awarded the Hivos Tiger Award at the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam. This review contains spoilers. 

The Widowed Witch is a film that establishes residence in its heroine’s body early on. Like the titular Widowed Witch, Er Hao, the film makes its way in the world with a distant, mordant eye on the symbols and illusions of witchcraft and Shamanism. Like Er Hao, the film is a sly manipulator up against the rules of village life. And like Er Hao, Cai Chengjie’s deadpan fairy tale takes on the contradictions of superstition and the furious chimera of women’s power to conjure an intriguing, misshapen magic.

Er Hao’s journey begins in a snowy hallucination, a winter’s tale of parabolic gestures and pale light. A woman tells a tragic story and wakes up far away; the world is in black and white and she has just been brought back to life. As Er Hao (Tian Tian) comes to, we see though her eyes her relatives’ home in a snowy Hebei village, a reverse Oz. Paralyzed and unable to speak, Er Hao learns that her family’s fireworks factory has exploded and though she has been miraculously restored by a local Shaman, her husband – a man with “humble eyebrows and shining eyes” – is dead. After she is raped by her uncle, a scene that plays out from an unendurably close point-of-view, Er Hao is gone. She reclaims her camper van from a hapless neighbor and takes off across a cluster of villages, out of options and on the road to nowhere.

From here, the camera exits the immediacy of Er Hao’s body. Small figures and cars move at long range across a colorless landscape of snow and sky fine as ink on paper. Cai plays heavily with the elements throughout the film, tokens of magic and deep winter drawn out in smoke and mirrors, fire and ice, the alchemies of temperature and earth. Er Hao is often hidden behind steam or through glass as she searches for a warm place to sleep, and fends off a series of terrible men. Some men, like the village mayor, are predatory; some are little boys playing with dynamite; another, the old soothsayer and invalid Long Siye, is just extremely smelly. Er Hao keeps moving, cutting an elegant figure among the dry cornstalks and too much snow. She’s deft when the village mayor hits on her, “I’ve been married three times and all the men died,” she tells him, “If you don’t want to get reelected next year, let’s go for it.” She makes Long Siye take a bath in the freezing courtyard. Er Hao is scorched as a “cursed women” by the village wives. She’s surrounded by explosive materials.

The Widowed Witch (courtesy of Icarus Films)

The Widowed Witch (courtesy of Icarus Films)

Er Hao’s fortunes take a turn when Long Siye’s bath seems to have restored his ability to walk and in a tribunal of oafish superstition, the town men decide that Er Hao is definitely a witch. In an orchestration that plays as a candlelight ritual, Er Hao is silhouetted, flanked on either side by the village men. Er Hao’s power is sure to be a powder keg of controversy, the men agree, scrambling to solve her problems as fast as they can create them. When electric lights switch on abruptly (“the power’s back on!”) in a moment of blisteringly funny disenchantment, the candles are unceremoniously blown out and the men leave her alone on her alter. Er Hao has no choice but to accept that she is a witch.

Back on the road, Er Hao moves with new resolve to find a place to live. She and her confidante, Shitou – her brother-in-law, a sweet, mute boy of about twelve – camp in their van, rootless outside the village perimeter. Er Hao meets Xu Wei, an old crush bubbling with entrepreneurial arrogance, and teases him about the angel wings sewn into his leather jacket, “Oh my god! It’s not enough to ride a motorcycle, you want to fly now?” She plucks a feather from his jacket, wistful. Later, she leaves him trapped inside a cupboard. She visits her second husband’s family and finds her sister-in-law pregnant with a baby she can’t afford, especially if it’s another girl. Er Hao tells the woman’s no-good husband that she will transform the baby into a boy if he follows her rules: he must treat his wife with great care and take over all the housework until the baby is born. Er Hao is summoned to exorcise the ghost of a little girl “left behind” by her parents. When she encounters the little girl in a field, she is unfazed, settling into her power. Er Hao’s gaze grows more direct, her plans sharper, her look wilder.

Cai builds Er Hao’s power though a magical illogic. Young woman and girls who bend Er Hao’s sense of justice are summoned in and out of air. Dead animals, half-miracles, and exploding apples unsettle the frozen ground. Though the film plays out largely in cropped black and white, hushes of color from embers and colored lights emerge in a few moments where Er Hao’s memories pour through the grayscale. Towards the end of her journey, Er Hao and Shitou post up like outlaws with string lights standing guard around their camper van. Her face glows like the snow.

The Widowed Witch (courtesy of Icarus Films)

The Widowed Witch (courtesy of Icarus Films

Cai’s filmmaking presents a vivid collision of darkly absurd fairy tale tropes and a posture of Western ranginess, a framing that underscores the bitter reality of Er Hao’s community. For a woman with few economic options taking a lifetime of loss in stride, being cast as a witch isn’t necessarily divination – it’s a job. Still, in scenes that lay bare the tragedy of rural poverty and domestic violence, Er Hao’s power is her righteousness, her ability to make her own rules and divine intervention as a kind of Shaman-cum-social worker. Er Hao’s steers superstitions into small subversions, proving that to survive as a women is a kind of magic.

During Chinese New Year, a calamitous sonic wall of unsettles spirits and fireworks closes in around Er Hao’s final days as a wandering witch. Er Hao crosses through gateways of life and death, overwhelmed; and speaks of herself drawing closer to becoming a village ghost. When she refuses to bless Xu Wei’s ill-fated mining operation, Er Hao is banished by the village men, who exterminate her power by dousing her in the “urine of hundreds of families.” Er Hao loses everything. Broken and banished by the people who demanded her power, she leaves behind two final acts – one of revenge and one of hope – and departs a frozen world. She is cursed, she is free, and of course she’s doomed. A witch can’t win because a witch doesn’t play by the rules. Er Hao disappears from the earth as a plume of smoke to the sky, unknowable through the upside-down gaze of those still left inside their bodies.