Strange Magic: A Review of Rotterdam Winner 'The Widowed Witch'
This piece is part of a series. As a small means of solidarity with curators, critics and creators, during this extraordinary moment of crisis and confinement, dGenerate Films is opening our doors to those interested in writing and engaging with our collection. Novelist and critic Thelma Adams has been writing about Chinese films since the 90s.
by Thelma Adams
Few supernatural films are less spooky than The Widowed Witch – but this haunting tale of one woman’s journey across the rural Northern Chinese wasteland horrifies in its own way. The winner of the Rotterdam Film Festival’s prestigious Tiger Award in 2018 subtly turns the genre’s conventions on their head to dive deep into a story of women’s power and powerlessness – and poverty’s crushing impact on rural characters.
The drama focuses on a beautiful, almost ethereal woman, Er Hao (played by Tien with a dazzling stillness). Initially paralyzed, she returns from death’s door to a brutal awakening. The man who rescues and shelters her casually molests Er Hao in her semi-comatose state. Seen from her alarmed yet frozen viewpoint, he first removes one sock. Then he removes the other. Then he removes her pants – and unzips his. She’s helpless to struggle or call out. This early scene sets the stark and understated tone that defines the movie as a whole.
Who needs the supernatural when the reality of human cruelty can be so banally horrific? That question underscores this serenely directed drama by first-time filmmaker Cai Chengjie, who also wrote the script. With sharp economy, Er Hao’s backstory unfolds in fragments of recovered memory. She discovers that her third husband has been burnt to a crisp when his illegal fireplace factory caught fire – along with their house and livelihood.
Now dependent on the generosity – or lack thereof -- of her neighbors, Er Hao and her deaf 10-year-old brother-in-law travel from snowy Hebei Province landscape to hovel to village to town in a battered van. At every frigid turn, greed, jealousy, opportunism and gossip stymies them.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Er Hao returns to the house of the crippled old clairvoyant whose predictions sent her into the arms of the late fireworks maker. Clearly, that was not a fate that has left her prosperous and happy. Still, overcoming her repulsion at the invalid’s smell, she bathes him. In the process, it appears that she restores the health of his legs. He declares it miraculous – and the notion that she is a widow with a supernatural gift spreads like flames at a fireworks factory.
Her new-found power hardly changes the situation she shares with her sensitive young brother-in-law. They drive from farm to village seeking heat and shelter. At least now, with her widowed witch reputation, she has something that she can sell or barter. And, so, she takes on quests, using spells and magic in which she hardly believes to “turn” a baby in a woman’s belly from a girl to a boy. In another case, she seeks out the spirit of a young girl who disappeared in a well.
In the scene where Er Hao encounters that lost girl in a snowy field of white, the director presents their encounter with dispassionate realism. The girl is clearly a child actress with her feet on the ground – no floating, no transparency, no woo-woo. While the youngster’s smoking a cigarette, odd for a child, and offers one to Er Hao, their meeting is matter-of-fact. And, yet, in their exchange, the girl reveals how the widow’s second husband died in the same well that took her own life prematurely. This revelation confirms the strange magic to which the widow has access, and also the repeated losses that haunt her personally.
What is devastating about The Widowed Witch is that while Er Hao’s supernatural power places her at the center of her own narrative, it doesn’t release her from the grasping, jealous, brutal and lustful nature of the surrounding humanity. Her gift offers no shelter. She gains no lasting connection to a supreme and more forgiving being. Magic or no, the woman must withstand the tragedy of poverty, loss and a society of men and women gambling with the supernatural to achieve success in a universe where fate gives with one hand and takes with the other.