(Zhou Xiaowen, China, 1994)


The mid ’90s was an interesting time for screen portrayals of women who are not necessarily likable – even casually evil in some respects – but are nonetheless absolutely compelling. There was Gong Li in Shanghai Triad (1995) and, more comically, Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995). Another Chinese film in this lineage, Ermo, is named after its sulking, driven, all-too-human peasant heroine.

Ermo (superbly underplayed by Alia) is not exactly, as the film’s promotion suggests, a femme fatale. And neither does her trajectory resemble the guilt-and-redemption gauntlet that so many Bad Men of the cinema run. As for the heroines of Zhang Yimou’s films, life in a harsh, ungenerous, unjust world has sharpened Ermo’s sense of how to play vicious power games on a minute, daily level.

The conditions of existence in this village are more depressing than in the greyest parts of Britain portrayed by Ken Loach. Ermo makes baskets which lay around, unsold; she sits on the sidewalks trying to flog her twisted noodles. Her old husband – once “chief” of the village but now powerless like everyone else – is sick and impotent. And, driving what little plot there is in this movie, Ermo pathetically pines, scrimps and saves for a bigger television set than the one owned by her unlovely neighbour.

Zhou Xiaowen’s film is in many respects a bleak essay, as grinding at times for the audience as it is for these sad characters. Moments of happiness are fleeting, easily crushed under the numbing repetitions of the everyday struggle to survive. Yet there is a wry sort of grace and wisdom to be enjoyed here, as when someone says of Ermo: “Treat her like a fart. Don’t hold her in, let her out”.

© Adrian Martin July 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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