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The Widowed Witch

Winner of the top prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival, director Cai Chengjie’s debut feature is, like its titular protagonist, unexpectedly powerful and fiercely unpredictable.

Deemed cursed by the local villagers, three-time widow Er Hao (Tian Tian) has her hands full with a rogue fireworks explosion, a tagalong teenager, and a veritable army of crazed local men who can’t keep their hands off her. Turned away when she seeks shelter from her neighbors and forced to take up residence in a cold camper van, Er Hao’s future looks as bleak as the stark, snowy countryside.

But a series of fluke changes in fortune causes Er Hao to embrace the mystical identity her villagers have assigned to her. As a sort of modern shaman, she steers superstitions into small subversions, helping others who once shunned her and proving that to survive as a woman is a kind of magic.

THE WIDOWED WITCH fearlessly addresses the power of religion in China which, according to the dictates of Communism, is effectively banned. It also conveys the cruelty that can come with village life, and counters the Western narrative of China as a superpower by showing a place where the rule of law is all but nonexistent. Not only is there no recourse or safety net, even the rape that Er Hao suffers goes unpunished. Abused and shunned, Er Hao gains power over the men who have wronged her—but can she find a place in a misogynist, patriarchal and deeply lonely social structure?

With a stunning array of visual styles and a genre-exploding approach to storytelling, THE WIDOWED WITCH is a simultaneously idealistic and despairing film—a bleak view wrapped in a fabulist aesthetic, and one that encompasses both magic realism and crushing social satire.