Pema Tseden sets his tiny family drama “Balloon” on the dangerous course of a broad social commentary that touches on religion, abortion, and the Chinese law of family birth control.
My first encounter with Pema Tseden’s work took place a few months ago in Wrocław. His previous feature film “Jinpa” joined the competition at New Horizons International Film Festival, and although it came back home empty-handed, “Jinpa’s” exotic narrative and skillful direction has grown on me over time.
And when in 2019, Pema Tseden returned to the festival circuit with “Balloon”, I was happy to see where the Chinese filmmaker steered his next project to.
“Balloon” begins with a short information about the existing Chinese law that limits the number of children born into one family to two, however that information comes to play quite late in the film. Tseden’s unhurried, a bit chatty beginning helps to establish characters and control the cold, distant setting of the Tibetan barrens.
The story follows a family of sheep farmers, Drolkar and Dargye (two returning collaborators of Tseden Sonam Wangmo and Jinpa respectively). The happy couple has three kids, and one of them is brought back to the remote family house just about when the school semester ends. Along with the oldest child arrives Drolkar’s sister, who lives a peaceful life of a monk.
Within the first half an hour of “Balloon”, Pema Tseden confidently reduces any cultural barriers we might have had as the viewers. Dialogues are gracefully light and witty, and map the family bonds crystal clear. Once that first impression settles, with some finely crafted pieces of cinematography, Pema Tseden reveals the true wound he’s about to rip wide open and tinker with.
In the film’s opening scene, two boys of Drolkar and Dargye play with titular balloons, but the shape of the toys indicate nothing else than latex contraceptives. Tseden turns it into a joke, but only to focus on the repercussions later on – contraception is barely used in the area, and Drolkar is ashamed of opting for it.
And here comes the moment when “Balloon” defines its vocation.
Pema Tseden explains how problematic the Chinese law is. He proves that the two-child policy builds boundaries for the poorer, in spite of their limited knowledge concerning birth control. Moreover, they’re not given a proper access to contraceptives either, and are ought to rely on scarce resources of a local hospital. Tseden makes a point that Drolkar’s afraid of fines and carrying the burden of feeding one more mouth, but he doesn’t stop at local humiliation or the need to sneak contraceptives as drugs.
Because the real drama, with Drolkar in the centre, comes round with the role of religion in all of this.
In many conservative countries, abortion and contraception generate heated discussions, with religious side ardently voicing its concern about how these two practics are responsible for killing. But Tibet isn’t on par with such principles. The monks aren’t there to bash Drolkar, or tell her what to do – that’s done by the beliefs of Jinpa, the husband. That’s also the role of Drolkar’s sister. They both have their reasons to make their opinions matter more. And when the hard decision needs to be made, Drolkar is pinned to the wall from all sides but her own needs and thoughts.
Apart from the story’s meaningful and important message, Pema Tseden’s “Balloon” is a joy to watch.
The film mesmerises visually thanks to a bunch of tricks. Tseden’s camera steadily swings between characters in dialogue-driven scenes, and finds stunning frames and colour palettes when the narrative jumps into a spiritual world that accompanies the purely realistic plot. The director knows when the viewer needs to be awed, when the emotions rise or when should they be silenced. That meticulous design of the film, reflected in the visuals and sound design, is sealed by whole-hearted roles of everyone involved. The entire ensemble gives the best they can, and help Tseden’s cause.
Balloon (2019) – Culturally Hated or Culturally Loved?
I feel that Pema Tseden sharpens his tools both as as a storyteller and craftsman. Even in the limited comparison with his previous film “Jinpa”, “Balloon” displays much more premeditated narrative. The Asian cinema finally broke the dams and gains international recognition, and it’s films like “Balloon” that deserve it.
Dir. Pema Tseden
Hate Grade: 2.5/10
Overall Judgment: “Balloon” constitutes an important voice that condemns the Chinese law of family birth control, and at the same time, its director Pema Tseden crafts a visually engaging and plausible image.