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Pema Tseden’s Balloon: Discreet drama with a light touch

TibetanReview.net, Jan16’22

Luna L.H.* analyses Balloon, the latest film from the foremost filmmaker in Tibet, which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and won best screenplay at the Chicago Film Festival.

Writer-filmmaker PemaTseden’s latest Balloon (དབུགས་ལྒང་།) is a family drama set on a sheep farm in Tibet. A rugged herder, father of three young boys, is going through a midlife bout of resurgent libido and the wife is worried about birth control. With this quaint storyline, this unassuming and deceptively simple film ascends to an allegorical meditation on the quandary of humans as corporeal creatures mired in earthly life but conscious enough to reflect on this predicament. 

Life on the sheep farm is a daily tumble with the more brutish aspects of life and procreation. Dargye returns home with a prize ram borrowed from a friend and is all agog at the prospect of mating his flock with it. But a docile ewe his wife likes is segregated to be sold to the butcher as the ewe being barren has outlived its utility. When the ram is let into the pen for mating, the sheep scurry around – the camera mimicking the feverish pace spins into a tizzy, making us sense the almost menacing libido of the ram and the panic in the flock. While the bestial undercurrent in the whole scene is quite confronting, the camera cuts for a last instant to the ram’s face, and the curiously human look of satiation it has is even more unsettling. Drolkar scolds her two little boys who run into the yard to look at the animals copulating as the old grandfather just guffaws crudely. Later at the family dinner table, the same grandfather is repulsed by a television programme on test tube babies pronouncing it to be a profane obscenity. Fecundity is not only a valued trait in livestock, but a virtuous attribute of creation ingrained in the natural order.

Human sexuality would have also been in its natural rhythm, but children are a costly proposition not an extra hand to be welcomed as in the old pastoral way of life. Drolkar is planning to get her tubes tied and makes do with condoms in the meantime. But her little boys mistaking them for balloons steal her scant stock from under her pillow. First time, Dargye catches them playing with the condoms blown up like balloons, it causes an awkward scene with the grandfather who’s oblivious of what they actually are. The second time they steal her last piece to exchange for a toy whistle with another boy, it not only causes a brawl between Dargye and that boy’s father, but leads to Drolkar having an unwanted pregnancy that shakes their family life asunder.

Drolkar’s younger sister, a nun, comes on a visit to the family and picks up her eldest nephew from the town school on the way. There she has a tense furtive encounter with a teacher who gives her a book and indeed we later learn that the man was an old flame who’d jilted her and the book is a novel he has written on their love story. Drolkar thrusts the book into the stovefire and forbids her to think about him, saying books are just tales and not real. But is the solidity of ordinary life more assured than a fanciful tale? Never mind high-minded intellectualising about the meaning of life, most human lives steeped in the sublunary realms of love and livelihood grapple with these more earthly concerns. Whether it’s Drolkar in the thick of her conjugal life or her sister sworn off to celibacy due to a betrayal in love, both entanglement or renunciation tussle within the same mortal coil of existence.

While this essay identified its thematic subtext at the outset, the film proceeds much more subtly offering only an unembellished portrayal of their life. Lesser mortals without the gift for fiction strive for thematic exposition like I’ve done in this essay, but art insinuates it doesn’t propound. Vignettes of domestic life of the household establish the outward texture of that world, and the drama emerges tacitly within the interactions between the characters. In bed that night, Drolkar coyly chides her husband likening him to the ram, this is not mere coquetry but hints at the ambiguity of bodily passion – desire for intimacy clouded by a hint of repulsion at the animality of what it entails. But this is not to say that the brute biological fact is the whole truth lurking beneath the facade of human endearments, family ties of love are the definitive truths in our conscious minds, sometimes even resolving questions of this life and the next. At the dinner, the family talk about how the eldest son was instantly recognised as a reincarnation of their late grandmother because of the identical mole on his back.

Tseden explores the incongruity beneath the ordinary life of the family unit as a function of blind biology but also the site of our most intimate loves and sorrows. But it is not a clever ironic dissection of the dissonance rather a humane empathic dramatisation of how these people spontaneously experience and rationalise this conundrum from within their beliefs and thoughts. This unobtrusive form of storytelling is also enhanced by the flat realism of a sedate cinematographic style and its wan colour scheme. The film mostly employs a handheld camera style, cleverly varying the angle and movement to heighten the specific mood of each scene. 

There are also a couple of dream sequences suffused with a surreal mood speaking directly to the existential concerns at the core of the film. At bedtime, the boys in their play talk quiz the grandfather about reincarnation, and as they trace the mole on the eldest boy’s back, the scene transitions into a dream sequence with the two little naked boys running off into a vast expanse with the mole clenched in their fingers. On the night of the grandfather’s death, after a muted yet poignant scene of the funerary rites, the eldest boy has a dream of calling after the grandfather across an oneiric landscape as the old man’s wavering reflection dissipates into the water. But there is no dissonance between the dream sequences and the waking events lived by the characters, instead they amplify the tenor of their daytime subjectivity and their inner emotional state.

When Drolkar falls pregnant, her nurse friend persuades her to get an abortion, warning her about the government fine on birthing more than three children and the burden of adding another to the brood. The nun sister on the other hand is buoyed by the news as fulfilling the Lama’s prophecy that the recently-deceased grandfather would be reborn soon within the family. Drolkar discusses the practicality of affording another child with Dargye, but he wholeheartedly believing the unborn to be his father’s incarnation hits her in a fit of anger. Since practical reasoning fails, Drolkar petulantly retorts how the grandfather’s soul could have been reborn when the forty-nine day-period of funerary ritual hadn’t even been completed. 

Not a hard man despite his gruff exterior, Dargye apologises the next day and pleads with her to not get the abortion, yet Drolkar lands up in the clinic soon after. Dargye tears through into the clinic in a blinding rage to confront Drolkar only to be met by her teary-eyed face as she lies hitched up on the operating table. That split second of her face is all we are allowed, and the scene just drops off with no explanation of what transpired. Instead, the pain, remorse and empathy in Drolkar’s face in that split second focus makes the viewer wonder if she didn’t have the abortion wilfully but because of complications (she had earlier spoken of having a bad dream of the barren ewe birthing a stillborn). This scene is also a credit to the actress’s ability to convey such emotions without speaking a word. A born-and-bred Lhasa girl, the actress not only speaks the Amdo dialect with flawless intonation but has nailed the mannerisms of a nomad wench, speaking with a shy downward tilt in her face yet bearing up with a steely gaze in moments of crisis.

Next we see Drolkar getting ready to go with her sister to the nunnery perhaps to expiate for her ‘sin’ or to spend some time away from the daily grind of family life. Drolkar had earlier expressed regret at her sister becoming a nun due to her unsavoury love affair, but now after her own misfortune Drolkar tells the sister that being a nun is far better. The banal yet charming picture of the wife so wrapped up in her domestic life is now totally shattered as Drolkar makes this furtive confession in this hushed sisterly tête-à-tête. As they say their goodbyes, the sensitive eldest son worriedly asks Drolkar if she too isn’t becoming a nun. Drolkar doesn’t reply but her large eyes stare out blankly from her face wrapped in a scarf — her inner dilemma has sapped her of the strength to even give a pat answer of a simple no to reassure her son. All the weight of the existential dilemma beneath even the most simple existence of a seemingly happy herder life envelops the viewer like the mist of that chill morning on the Amdo steppe in that discreet moment of numbing sorrow.

While Drolkar’s ordeal and departure marks the schism in the story, the film doesn’t stop there and proceeds to show their lives in the shadow of the catastrophe. The husband rides into town to drop his eldest back at school and sell the barren ewe to get cash for the boy’s tuition fee. This small town is a nondescript yet alienating world where the Hui butchers cajole Dargye into a deal as he stands impassively almost a lamb to the slaughter himself. Dargye ambles around aimlessly in the market and stops in the town square staring leadenly at a giant statue (which is ironically that of Guanyin the Chinese deity called the mother of compassion) as the rain pours down. While the woman conscious of her own suffering ascends to the clarity of her inner reckoning, the husband shows the other side of tragedy that is the lot of many of us who live in a muddle, touched by melancholy but unable to pierce through to tragic realisation. This is also in tune with his character as the strapping rough-and-ready male to Drolkar’s intelligent perceptive feminine sensitivity. 

After his stupefied stroll through the town, Dargye returns home with balloons for the children as he had promised them in the very beginning. A balloon escapes from the child’s hand, and as it wafts away into the sky, the camera cuts to the faces of the various characters by turn, showing the man, the little boys, the sisters, the nun’s old lover, the nurse as they gaze up at it from their solitary little earthbound corners. As the balloon floats away the heavy pall of sadness also lifts from the film, but this final scene does not spell complete catharsis, nothing in life is given so unequivocally. Instead, as the faces of these characters so recently racked by sorrow gaze up with blank wonderment a sense of equanimity descends. Just like the most fleeting joys great sorrow is also a momentary jolt as the most painful events flash and then fade away inchoately as the most mundane ones.

A balloon mistaken for a condom may seem like a somewhat gauche joke, but now as it floats away it transcends into a symbolic object endowing the film with its climactic meaning. Further the thematic resonance is even stronger in Tibetan as the Tibetan neologism ‘ug-gang’ for balloon literally meaning ‘filled with air’ is heavy with connotations of ephemerality and impermanence. But symbolism while an easy aesthetic technique is hard to employ with subtlety, and the balloon symbolism in the film can strike as a tad facile to a very critical viewer. This is merely a quibble though. Although the film is allegorical, given Tseden’s delicacy of touch, one doesn’t read the film as an exposition of a subtext but walks away feeling a lingering empathy with what the family goes through.

A chance mischief of her children leads to Drolkar’s pregnancy and her consequent unravelling, from her benign existence of easy domesticity to alienation from her lot in life. But an external event is perhaps merely an outward manifestation of the tension that every life is fraught with yet keeps it afloat. Unwittingly thrust into an existence incomprehensible to us, the frisson of life in all its lures and disappointments sustains this sentient-carnal condition of ours. But even if unrelieved by transcendent spiritual meanings that the ideologues of religion preach, there is perhaps redemptive grace innate to the most ordinary life in how we subsist in this ebb and flow – this is the discreet drama of the human predicament and its equally discreet denouement that only art can envision.

*The author writes under a pseudonym.

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