The chains that bind the mind

Issue 

Ermo
Directed by Zhou Xiaowen
Featuring Alia, Ge Zhijun and Liu Peiqi
Valhalla, Sydney, from May 9
Reviewed by Eva Cheng

Ermo is an attempt to portray an unconventional woman from an oppressive culture and social setting. Ermo (Alia), with a strong character and economic independence, is a refreshing exception in a highly conservative Chinese village.

But Ermo's liberation is a limited one, set tightly within the bounds of oppressive "moralism", fetishising of the family system and capitalist consumerism. The story suggests that a change in material conditions can upset "social" roles, but that liberation from deeply ingrained ideological slavery requires more to achieve.

The inability of Ermo's much older husband (Ge Zhijun), the chief, to play the traditional role of breadwinner, mainly due to poor health, has created an opening for Ermo to live a less conventional life. His impotence makes Ermo more open to an affair. Ermo's mobility — the need to travel to town for work, away from neighbours' supervision — makes it easier for an affair to happen.

Ermo's problems are magnified by the fact that her secret lover is a married man next door, Blindman (Liu Peiqi). Ermo's quest for independence makes her feel deeply offended when she discovers that Blindman has been secretly subsidising her job in town; she promptly quits to defend her pride. This is a bold move because her return to a rural job — making and selling noodles — undermines her income and her treasured plan to buy a TV.

She is keen on a TV set because she thinks it would stop her seven-year-old son from going to Blindman's house for TV. A bad relationship with Blindman's wife has induced in Ermo an urge to surpass her by having a bigger TV. The size of the TV has also become a measure of her achievement in life. She wants one that is bigger than anyone else's in the village. She sells her own blood to speed up the TV plan.

The pressure of villagers' speculation about their relationship prompts Ermo and Blindman to call off their affair. Blindman makes publicised visits to a brothel, where he is badly injured in a fight, to create a smokescreen against the damaging speculation about Ermo.

Ermo's TV aspiration is finally fulfilled. But the family bed is the only place in the house big enough for the TV. The neighbours' admiration is satisfying indeed, but the house has turned into a bit of a public cinema. Her health has also suffered, and she is left frail and listless, watching crappy foreign shows which are totally irrelevant to her life.