Pre-eminent Tibetan director Pema Tseden returns to screens with his latest, finally released in the UK after premiering at the Venice Film Festival two years ago. Balloon is a poetic, bleak, funny, and deeply humane portrait of life in rural Tibet.
In the early 1980s, Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), lives in the mountains with husband Dargye (Jinpa), his father and their two younger sons, while their oldest son, Jamyang (Dudul), attends school in the nearest town. Drolkar’s sister, Shangchu Drolma (Yangshik Tso), has returned from her nunnery and we learn that Shangchu Drolma had a relationship with Jamyang’s teacher, which, after it ended and he pressured her into an abortion, drove her to become a nun. When the younger boys find the couple’s precious condoms, mistaking them for balloons, Drolka’s own bodily autonomy is jeopardised.
Tseden’s films – this being his seventh – are rarely less than visually beautiful, stark, and with a dry, sometimes dark sense of humour running through them. In this, Balloon is no different, building on Tseden’s back catalogue to create a work of disarmingly tender and subtle humanity, effortlessly incorporating the cosmic and mundane, the sacrosanct and the profane. In its depiction of a rural Tibetan family, Balloon presents a perspective through which life’s totality is in its everyday experience.
That totality is captured through three generations of Drolka’s family, connecting them to the past, present and future. While Dargye’s father fears the new technology of IVF, their conservative community still considers condoms to be scandalous, while the young boys are hilariously ignorant of the stir that their new ‘balloon’ has caused. After his father passes, Dargye is convinced that he will be reincarnated back into the family, and fearful that his wife will sever their families connection to the past by terminating a pregnancy. Elsewhere, Shangchu Drolma, arrested by her trauma, is fixed in time, unable to move forward.
The microcosm of the family provides an insight into Tibet’s national politics, particularly around China’s one child policy, and more broadly about attitudes women’s rights over their own bodies. Yet Balloon never uses its characters as proxies for political discussion; Tseden’s concern is firmly with his characters as human beings. His method is rooted in realism, favouring intimate, often handheld camera work whose immediacy is juxtaposed against often stunningly beautiful compositions and dreamlike landscapes. Daily routines are brought to tactile life with a focus on character’s hands as they drink tea or knead bread, while conversations framed through windows creates a lived intimacy that we can momentarily peer in to.
The barren grey of the film’s setting becomes a sublime canvas in the hands of Tseden’s regular cinematographer, Lu Songye, using it to contrast the intense reds and blues of the characters’ dress. But it is perhaps Tseden’s sense of humour that is the key to the film. Dargye’s infantile fight with an old man, scandalised by the prophylactic balloons, is hilariously punctuated by one of the boys blowing a whistle like a referee. Later, the promise of a real balloon is comically fleeting, a moment of innocent exhilaration lost to time.