Tibetan author and director Pema Tseden has offered audiences a great deal of information about the harsh life people lead on Tibet’s mountain plateaus, delicately blending ethnographic elements with moral and ethical dilemmas that highlight the people’s Buddhist faith. Balloon (Qiqiu) has the additional value of being predominantly a woman’s story that slyly addresses China’s one-child (now two-child) policy through the allusive humor of some misunderstood condoms. Just like the director’s Jinpa from last year, it bows in Venice’s Horizons section before making its way to Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema audiences.
Tseden’s glancing story contains hints rather than statements about sexual behavior and how traditional family roles are diverted by political realities; namely, the official ban on large families and the stiff fines imposed by the Chinese government for having too many babies.
Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), sheep farmers on a vast empty plain, already have their teenage boy Jamyang in school and two small boys at home. As an embarrassed Drolkar confides to a young woman doctor at the local health clinic, her husband is a randy ram in bed and she has quickly run out of the free condoms handed out at the clinic. She plans to have her tubes tied once and for all. But meanwhile, her little boys naively inflate the condoms she hides under the bedclothes, believing they’re balloons.
For a rural society that survives on mating rams and ewes, the people are surprisingly puritanical about sex. When the two boys exchange a condom-balloon for a neighbor boy’s whistle, all hell breaks out. Their outraged neighbor fights Dargye in a medicinal bath for his lice-ridden sheep in a loud scene that seems to be played seriously, though the situation is farcical.
But there is another, sadder thread woven through the film. It is the backstory of Drolkar’s sister, a young woman (played with stoic melancholy by Yangshik Tso) who wears the red robes and bonnet of a Buddhist nun. While she is waiting at school to pick up her nephew Jamyang, she is shocked to see her old paramour, a skinny teacher with oversize glasses, standing in front of her. He is still in love with her and, he lets slip, newly divorced. That is all we learn about their affair, which obviously ended badly (the nun later calls it her “unforgivable sin”). The teacher gives her a book he has published — all about their love affair. She wants to read it, but Drolkar, her married sister, gets rid of it in deep puritanical disgust. Thus she cuts off all hope of the nun and teacher getting back together and maybe starting a family.
This leads to a huge problem. When Drolkar discovers she’s pregnant with her fourth child, the clinic insists she have an abortion, while her husband insists she have the child. Why? Because he believes the fetus is the reincarnated soul of his own father, who has recently died. This leaves Drolkar, subtly but expressively played by Tseden regular Sonam Wangma, forced to choose between the law and Buddhist tradition.
As the husband, Jinpa (another actor who recurs in the director’s oeuvre) embodies both pure masculinity (he is deliberated compared to the virile ram he borrows from his friend) and the traditions of his people. You feel the strong pull of their collective belief in reincarnation, yet you also sense that it is probably misinterpreted in simplistic ways. The final image of a red balloon rising into the sky eloquently suggests the mystery of the soul after death, which none of the observers can fully comprehend. This is the third, mystical note Tseden weaves into the story.
All of this is extremely subtle, however, and not so easy to grasp. Lu Songye’s naturalistic cinematography has no aesthetic pretentions and the camerawork is often surprisingly jerky, as though a Steadicam had not been used. This visually earthy approach is contrasted to the smoothness of Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian’s distinctive score.
Production companies: Tang Dynasty Culture Communication, Factory Gate Films, Mani Stone Pictures, Beijing China Central Plains, Digital Camera Line Pictures, iQIYI Pictures
Cast: Sonam Wangma, Jinpa, Yangshik Tso
Director-screenwriter: Pema Tseden
Director of photography: Lu Songye
Production designer: Daktse Dondrup
Editors: Liao Ching-Sung, Jin Di
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)
World sales: Rediance