In the course of cinematic history, there have been many great quests: searches for the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the true nature of Humankind, the essence of God, and, during this film from Chinese director Zhou Xiaowen, a 29-inch television. In Ermo, a somewhat better- constructed cousin to Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qui Ju, we follow the obsessive struggle of one woman (Alia) to earn the money to buy the biggest television in her village. There’s no sacrifice she won’t make, an attitude that her aging, impotent husband (Ge Zhijun) is incapable of understanding. In his view, money is for building houses, not buying gadgets.
If Ermo’s marriage is bad, it’s no worse than that of her next-door neighbor, Blindman (Liu Peiqi), whose overweight, shrill wife (Zhang Haiyan) is jealous of the thinner, prettier Ermo, who was able to bear her husband a son. Blindman finds Ermo a job in a nearby city, where she can make more money than in their small village. On the road, the two become lovers, but theirs isn’t exactly one of the great screen romances. Blindman talks about leaving his wife, but it’s clear he’s not serious, especially when he tells Ermo that she’s a good person at heart, but he isn’t.
The overall theme of Ermoechoes a simple truism: it’s often better wanting than having. Ermo’s entire life is focused on getting the television; what happens when she actually accumulates the money to buy it? When her life has a goal, she is vibrant, energetic, and pugnacious. Afterwards, how much of that will be replaced by apathy? Zhou is certainly criticizing materialism here, but only in the larger context of examining how we define meaning in our lives.
As was the case in Qui Ju, we are presented with a vivid contrast between rural and urban China. Ermo’s backwater village is still living in the past; the city is, for the most part, modern. However, where Zhang’s film tended to meander, Ermo stays focused, and the interaction between Blindman and Ermo presents a sexual element absent from the earlier movie.
An expert at capturing subtle mannerisms, Alia possesses the same kind of screen presence exhibited by Gong Li. Although there’s nothing wrong with her delivery of dialogue, the actress’ facial expressions are her greatest asset. Ermo is not an exceptionally well-written character, but Alia does an excellent job of breathing life into her.
Ermo is certainly on less ambitious footing than the recent string of grand historical epics coming from China. In many ways, this is refreshing, as the simpler story gives the viewer a different view of Chinese culture. And, although the message of Ermo is presented seriously, Zhou isn’t above having a little fun, and his lighter touch is one of the most refreshing elements of this enjoyable little drama.
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