There’s a strange blessing in being cursed, it turns out, in “The Widowed Witch,” an uneven but appealingly eccentric fable from Chinese newcomer Cai Chengjie that changes tone seemingly with the turn of the breeze. Alternating between deadpan social satire and ambiguity-riddled mysticism, this story of a serial widow who turns the superstitious suspicions of her community to her advantage nevertheless permits a clear feminist message through its tangle of styles, genres and even visual textures — as color creeps in and out of the black-and-white proceedings, seemingly in tune with the heroine’s state of mind. A well-received winner of the top prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Cai’s film nonetheless will be more readily embraced by further fest programmers than international distributors — for whom its opaque storytelling and heightened performance style mark it as challenging fare.
Though billed as a world premiere in Rotterdam, “The Widowed Witch” is in fact a film on its second life: It initially appeared under the title of “Shaman” at China’s independent-oriented Xining First Film Festival last summer. Despite winning top honors there, the film has reportedly since been substantially reedited — though while 20 minutes of screen time were shed in the process, the new cut still feels overly protracted at two hours.
The film’s first half, even with various sidewinding longueurs, is its liveliest, beginning with a cryptic pre-credit prologue that takes some time to settle into real-world sense. In a ravishing, full-color landscape dominated by wintry white, Erhao (Tian Tian) trudges through snowy woodland, relating a mordant tale of her complicity in a childhood tragedy, before being chased and struck down by a tambourine-wielding shaman of sorts. When she comes to, paralyzed and mute in a monochrome world, it seems the preceding scene was a mere hallucination, masking an even grimmer reality: Her injuries stem from an explosion at her illegal fireworks factory, in which her husband was killed.
Erhao has been widowed twice before in tragic circumstances, and it seems the third time is the anti-charm. She’s cold-shouldered by the other residents of her sleepy rural village, who believe her to be a witch, though that doesn’t stop her brother-in-law taking advantage of her prostrate position and raping her — another drastic tonal break, in horrifying first-person view. Though “The Widowed Witch” is spiked with droll comedy, Cai paints a predominantly ugly picture of a society threaded with patriarchal abuse, though Erhao’s acts of retaliation gain her an unexpected form of respect from the enemy: When she slaps one man in the face, he claims she has cured his stiff neck.
Coincidence? Maybe, but Erhao’s savvy enough to capitalize on her alleged powers, as the village’s menfolk swiftly rebrand her “a good witch sent to heal our suffering.” Yet what initially plays as a jaggedly witty, sidelong study of communal customs and psychoses descends into murkier territory in a less engaging second hour, which mixes is-she-or-isn’t-she supernatural musings with a streak of ashier, less accessible political allegory. Tian Tian’s consistently piercing performance gives a throughline to the film, even as its own narrative voice wavers.
If, from this point, “The Widowed Witch” becomes more chore than curio, its formal accomplishments continue to intrigue. Cai and cinematographer Jiao Feng often keep the audience at several arms’ length with their studied, sweeping long shots in conversely tight Academy ratio. Each frame rife with visual tension and detail, sometimes blushing at the edges with faint suggestions of color — a reminder of elusive hope, perhaps, in Erhao’s largely cynical existence. Even the film invites us closer, meanwhile, it finds ways to keep us squinting in scrutiny: In some scenes, faces are obscured by veils of steam, making a veritable netherworld of one woman’s everyday hell.