Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Widowed Witch

Better a witch than a cursed black widow—that seems to be the attitude of the provincial locals in a far corner of Heibei province. Despite the negative connotations, a witch can use her powers to grant them favors. Wang Erhao dramatically reinvents herself in Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch, which releases today on DVD, from dGenerate Films and Icarus Films.

Wang is three times unlucky—horribly unlucky. Not only was her third husband killed in his not-so legal fireworks factory, she was rendered comatose. A shaman revived her spirit, but she was temporarily trapped in a locked-in state, allowing her in-law to sexually assault her. When she finally regains full motor and verbal control, Wang packs up and hits the road with Shitao, her husband’s mute little brother, but they do not get very far, because where can they really go?

Initially, the local community continues to exploit her as best they can, but her Lazarus-like revival and a few instances of lucky, unexplained happenstance give rise to her reputation as a witch. At first, she uses tricks of suggestion to perform acts of supposed shamanism, but here and there, we see signs that maybe she has some sort of genuine powers—perhaps.

Wang Erhao ought to be the cinematic feminist icon of the decade, but the media sanctioned “activists” prefer fundraise off Trump rather than address the exponentially worse situation for women in China, Russia, and the rest of the non-democratic world. Wang crusades against the inequality, shames parents who sold daughters, emasculates harassers (metaphorically speaking), yet also becomes a protective surrogate mother to Shitao.

A film studies major could write an entire term paper on the various roles and meanings implied by Wang’s status as a so-called witch and/or shaman. Tian Tian’s breakout performance covers that gamut. She is fierce as a northern blizzard wind and acutely sensitive, often simultaneously. Wang is the stuff of fantastical fables, but she is also a flesh and blood woman.

In terms of ideological implications, Cai’s screenplay also cuts in many different directions. Officially, the superstitions causing so much grief and chaos are strictly forbidden by the Party. Yet, they have clearly not replaced them with an atmosphere of tolerance and community. Corruption is clearly rampant at the local and national level, leaving someone like Wang no recourse when she is done wrong.

Cai’s visual sensibility is also quite notable. She employs an Academy-like aspect ratio to symbolically box in Wang, despite the barren openness of the landscape around her. He and cinematographer Jiao Feng mostly frame their images in the bleakest black-and-white imaginable, but certain scenes glow with eerie candle-lit colors. This is a bold cinematic statement that will challenge and haunt viewers. Highly recommended for discerning viewers, The Widowed Witch is now available on DVD.