Tiger Talk #5 - Cai Chengjie

Cai Chengjie (1980) quit his job at the Chinese state television in order to realise his dream. He wanted to be an independent film director. The Widowed Witch is his first feature film.

It’s necessary to create drama, to move the story forward.” – Cai Chengjie

Since his graduation, Chengjie had worked for the China Central Television (CCTV), a gigantic broadcaster with 50 channels. “I made documentaries under strict political restrictions. Especially the visual language there was very limited.”

Chengjie taught the audience – particularly an older Chinese viewership – about law and societal issues. His work was very explanatory and made heavy use of flashbacks. Chengjie: “I found it repetitive, I wanted to express myself in my work. In 2016, I decided to quit.” 

Warm people
The Widowed Witch is a very personal movie. “I wanted to portray the picture of village life in northern China”, explains Chengjie. He’s very nostalgic about his own childhood in the north. “I wanted it to be as real as possible: the way they live, how they treat each other, the village landscape, the spiritual world.”

The villagers’ behaviour is brutal, especially the men are rude. Erhao, a widow and the main character of The Widowed Witch, is raped by a family member. Women want to kill her. “This happens everywhere in the world”, Chengjie says. “It’s necessary to create drama, to move the story forward.”

But there’s also warmth and hospitality to be found. Erhao finds shelter after her transformation into a shaman. Actually, Chengjie says, he wants to show a positive side of the countryside. “There is snow everywhere. The weather is cold, but the people are warm.” 

A return to village life; it’s not a new phenomenon in Chinese cinema. Jia Zhangke, for example, became internationally known with his low budget films about alienation and ‘authentic’ Chinese life.

Nevertheless, The Widowed Witch is a unique story, says Chengjie. “It’s the first Chinese film told through the perspective of a shaman, the local religious leader. Religion is a sensitive thing in China. It’s not a very religious country, but in real life there is a lot of spirituality. I wanted that to be a part of my work.”

Chengjie also mentions the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, as an inspiration. “Its absurdity, its fantasies which depict the tragic stories in life. The book is a universal absurdity.”

  • Still: The Widowed Witch

  • Still: The Widowed Witch

Nine days
Chengjie shot his movie in only nine days, after the Chinese New Year. The filmmaker didn’t work with any professional actors. The people he worked with spent their holidays filming on the countryside and, after nine days, headed back to their regular jobs in the city. “Almost no one lives in the village anymore”, Chengjie says.

The film is mostly in black and white, except for some touches of colour Chengjie applies here and there. The black and white signifies the old-fashioned life, he says. He sees his film as a reaction to the process of extreme urbanisation China has been going through.

Express yourself
The quality of independent movies in China is improving, sees Chengjie. “Many filmmakers have joined the independent film industry. The commercial industry remains more popular, of course, but young Chinese directors want to be part of the underground movement. Why? They want to express themselves.”

“There are so many new topics, the films are getting more and more diverse. There are animated films, there are political movies – while commercial films are often romantic. As an independent maker, you can say what you want. You can make an author’s film.”

Chengjie received two awards at the Chinese FIRST film festival. “Did you hear? Best feature, best director.” The festival has become the place to be for obstinate, taboo-breaking Chinese filmmakers.

Now, The Widowed Witchis heading for IFFR. Chengjie has never been at the festival and is very proud to show his feature film. Above all, he wants us to feel inspired by the village inhabitants. “Love and caring for each other, that’s the most important thing in life.” 

Photo in header: Interview: Sophie van Leeuwen & Pieter-Bas van Wiechen