Pema Tseden’s work is always a treat to delve in, as he plunges the audience into a journey through Tibet in a modest and humorous lens, where the reality exists on the verge of what seems a Buddhist sacrum clashing with the most common everyday life. His films deliberately continue to surprise me with the dualism depiction of Tibetan modernity, one that consists of well-preserved purity and digital dreams, but then again religious beliefs and sexual desires. He came back to Venice to compete in a side section of Orizzonti with his recent BALLOON (QIQIU), a tale loosely arguing the one-family one-child policy treatment in the rural areas of Tibet. As serious as it gets, the story of goatherd family tends to tackle the sexual side of Tibetans as well, bringing the joyful deconstruction of a taboo that constantly stays overshadowed by the governmental regulation and thus stays rotten in the moral conscience of many.
Dargye (Jinpa) and Dolkar (Sonam Wangmo), a married couple and blessed to be the parents of three boys, live in grasslands. Their household consists of goats and their existence is filled with everyday joys: the adults take care of the animals and two younger boys have fun with the condoms that they mistake for the balloons. It brings an embarrassment to the family, which sparks a series of social stigma, one that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. In this small society no one dares to be open about sexual matters, nor they seem to look for the resolution of that state of being. It becomes even more stirred, when the chance of a fourth newborn arises, a stalemate that may bring the doom for the family. Kids just want to have fun and so do the adults, but not here, not now, as the mistake in a child’s world has its consequences painted with fierce strokes in the realm of grownups.
Tibet is not – and may as well never be – ready for this film, said Pema Tseden during the interview we had. Even though BALLOON is far from being a subversive picture, as even eroticism exists merely only in words or jokes, but never in a true act, it seems that it is still too much of an upfront to Tibetans. The reasons for that seems to be many, with conservatism proving the social wrong or a lack of general education to name a few. What is interesting, that the interference of Chinese government policy determines the society differently in the rural sides, than it does in the urban area, which obviously shapes the mentality of those who are vulnerable the most. Tibetan farmers and nomads had been limited by law since 80s to a maximum of three children (this number is limited to two in cities). Still, there are strong incentives for families to have less kids and women are often times encouraged to have an abortion. Those who comply may expect some bonus social benefits, job promotions or even a free medical treatment for the first child. Of course, the exact opposite takes place to the uncooperative ones, including job penalties or the absurd extreme in which the kid may be denied from education or food rationing. There are times when mother would be told that the newborn had died, even though she hears the infant crying just outside the door. Forced abortions and sterilizations had became inseparable part of reality, a bargain card for many, but an indication of over-controlling China for most.
When the kids mistake condoms for a toy – a symbol representing the sexual side of life, unaccepted by the society, but also an object that restrains married couple from potential disaster of having an unwanted (in the eyes of the very same society) newborn – Pema Tseden starts to observe the Tibet in the dual categories. This world exists between the two, that the titular balloons point at. One side is the representation of what is real and natural, what lies within the human sphere, that is to say, the desire to be outside of one’s musts. The other side is the world of tradition, where there is no place for sexual taboos; consequently – Pema Tseden’s dualism may be the answer Tibet is looking for. The taboo-cutter of a condom-balloon splits this image into halves: the sexual arousal of a married couple is juxtaposed with the rawness of animals in their breeding habitat, a grotesque that sums up the absurdity of social prejudice towards the sexual silence. The balloon eventually will fly away up to the sky, as the promises for a better day has yet to come.
In his previous films, Pema Tseden rarely showed any interest in going into politics. He perceives himself as a filmmaker blending universal stories; ones that would tell about contradictions between Tibet, its people and what is outside of the magic box, that is modernity. Only in THARLO (2015) there was an indication of his political beliefs (it starts with a protagonist named Tharlo reciting the red book of Mao Zedong), but this was about the administrative flippancy aspects of everyday life in Tibet, made into a road-movie with an almost noir flick, rather than a politically-engaging attempt.
Therefore, BALLOON may be a shift towards different cinema in Pema Tseden’s career – same as few of his previous films it is also based on his book – but it remains within the style: with Jarmuschesque celebration of the mundane, humor that goes outside of correctness of any sort and a raw approach to nature, including that of humankind. It might be less genre-oriented and experimental – not an anti-western as it was with JINPA (2018) – but this mixture helps him build up metaphors that stand for the modern Tibet; a place that exists in its in-betweens – between sacred and funny, nature and culture, a sudden death and a long-cherished love, kids mistaking their parents’ condoms for balloons and the parents who have to save their youngsters no matter what. There is some beauty in that: in one sequence the director takes his best at the recreation of what may be a reincarnation scene. The camera closely follows a silhouette mirrored in the surface of water – an another example of director’s dualism. At some point the real picture disappears, leaving only the reflection as the camera keeps on going forward. Linearly, exactly as the time is perceived, we need to go forward and maybe – just maybe – one day in our next life, these taboos will only make us laugh. But for now, when the balloon goes up, it is surely better to float away.