As a novelist and a filmmaker, Pema Tseden is probably one of the key figures in the contemporary Tibetan culture. His newest film, “Balloon” (“Qiqiu” in the original) is kinda connected to his previous works, especially with “Tharlo” (2015) and his previous award-winning Venice title “Jinpa” (2018), at least through his “house actor” Jinpa and the topics revolving around Buddhist religion, mysticism and philosophy. However, “Balloon” has another, quite this-worldly, realistic layer to it: the examination of One-child Policy from a distinctly Tibetan point of view. The film, like its predecessor, has premiered recently at Orizzonti competition of the 76th edition of Venice Film Festival.
The story follows a family living alone on the vast plateau surrounded by their prized sheep. It consists of an ailing grandfather (Konchok), a father named Dargye (Jinpa), a mother Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) and their two mischievous sons who have found two of the last condoms in their parents’ stash and use them like balloons for playing with each other. The time period is not specified, but it can either be in the 80s or 90s, which means that One-child Policy was still very dominant and brutally enforced even by lenient doctors. With Dargye’s libido, Drolkar’s inability to say no to him and Tibetan religious and ethnological traditions (mainly, the belief in reincarnation of the deceased relatives in the small family circle), but also the shortages of material goods like condoms contradicted by the strictness of the state family planning policy, the problems are about to occur and to hit the family quite hard.
There are more subplots that eventually get connected to the main thread of the story. One of them follows Dargye’s business actions like borrowing the ram from his friend so it could impregnate as much of his ewes as possible, which serves as a statement of natural order of things opposed to man-made policies. Another one involving the couple’s student-age son Jamyang (Dudul), Drolkar’s nun sister Ani (Yangshiktso) who comes to pick him up and escort him home for summer holidays and his teacher, simultaneously her ex-lover (Kunde) tends to explore the relationship between love, religion and tradition.
“Balloon” would have been a wonderfully poignant social issues type of dramedy, but Pema obviously had other things in mind. It does not make the film less critical towards the repressive society and the pressures within the same circles, on the contrary. It just makes it richly layered and a bit exotic and hard to follow for those not quite acquainted with the traditions. On the other hand, this loose structure works as a rich tapestry that we can imagine reading a novel, but are rarely able to see in movies.
His storytelling might be meandering, but as a director he seems like a man with a vision that does not get satisfied by simply following certain rules of the trade. He is more intuitive than that, especially when it comes to working with actors, both professional and unprofessional, familiar or unfamiliar to him. That especially goes for Jinpa the actor whose performance is somewhat different from the ones as Jinpa the character.
The visual side of the film is quite impressive due to beautiful locations like wide open spaces and mountain landscapes, but also to Lu Songye’s sure-handed camerawork.
The trick with “Balloon” is that, like all the things that come from a strongly traditional culture, it has to be taken as it is. Pema Tseden is still on the virginal territory of inventing a film language that works in Tibetan surroundings and can treat a number of subjects, both philosophical and mundane. In the end, “Balloon” is a rewarding film and a step in Pema’s career to another masterpiece after “Jinpa”.