by Christopher Bourne Film

The Widowed Witch | Cai Chengjie

April 25, 2019

Cai Chengjie’s feminist fable The Widowed Witch plays-out across a succession of rural, wintry landscapes, through which travels Erhao (Tian Tian), a thrice-widowed woman who’s been ostracized, and deemed cursed, by her community, following the death of her third husband. A full color pre-credits sequence has Erhao relating the story of her younger brother’s tragic death, a death she was complicit in. This establishes the main visual motif of Cai’s film: characters are viewed as small figures, dwarfed by their environment — and vast vistas are cropped by a tight, academy ratio frame that makes interiors and exteriors alike feel claustrophobic. This opening then transitions to stark monochrome, with a shot from the POV of a bedridden, temporarily paralyzed Erhao, as she learns of her husband’s death. In this paralytic state, Erhao is raped by her uncle-in-law — a deeply disturbing sequence that is, again, shot from the character’s POV, while the credits roll.

Afterward, Erhao takes to the road, seeking shelter from a succession of predatory, corrupt men. Along the way, a series of inexplicable events take place: a man she slaps in the face has his neck pain cured; Erhao herself survives a direct gunshot from a resentful woman; and a, bedridden, disabled old man left in a bathtub, outdoors, miraculously walks again, instead of freezing to death. Because of these, and other seemingly supernatural occurrences, Erhao is deemed a shaman; but whether she actually has powers or not is left an open question. What is not ambiguous is the jaundiced eye that Cai casts on a deeply embedded corruption and a toxic patriarchy by no means limited to this village. Color sometimes bleeds into the monochrome image at the edges, representing the social and moral rot that dooms the villagers as much as Erhao herself — who, finally, disappears in a puff of smoke, the only way a woman can free herself of these oppressive structures.

Published as part of CineCina Film Festival 2019.