AFI Fest 2019: Balloon, by David Bax
In the first of a few trips into town the farming family in Pema Tseden’s Balloon makes–exciting events, even if usually necessitated by something unpleasant–we see propagandistic signage encouraging people to plan their families wisely. We will come to realize that this is exactly what the movie’s plot concerns but, in this moment, it’s a clue that we’re seeing an unvarnished view of life under Chinese rule and we’re seeing it from a source we rarely have occasion to access in the modern West, a Tibetan film made by a Tibetan director about Tibetan people. Unlike in films by Chinese (Paths of the Soul) or French (Himalaya) directors, the values of Balloon‘s characters on topics like sex and childbirth and their beliefs regarding things like reincarnation are taken at face value.
That doesn’t mean those values and beliefs aren’t challenged, only that the challenges come from within the characters’ lives and communities. Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) and her husband Dargye (Jinpa) are already at the end of their means trying to maintain their farm and take care of their three sons when the two youngest boys (the eldest is away at school) discover their parents’ last two condoms and mistake them for balloons. In the heat of passion, the couple persist anyway (well, Dargye does more insisting than Drolkar does persisting) and end up with a fourth child on the way, for which the Chinese government will levy them a fine they will be unable to weather. But personal beliefs and local customs about sex, contraception and abortion, along with the recent death of an elderly family member whose soul Dargye would like to see reborn as his own infant, complicate the decision.
All of this is melodrama but that mode is often hidden under the cover of Pema’s raw naturalism. The movie features almost no score; in its place is the roar of the wind whipping the dry, cold countryside. Your lips may chap just watching it.
Pema’s narratives mechanics are further obscured by the way he adorns the film with subplots. The largest of these involves Drolkar’s Buddhist nun sister (Yangshik Tso) revisiting past traumas. But the young boys and their desire for modest treats like balloons and whistles–and the lengths they’ll go to get them–form their own miniature storyline, the children’s perseverance becoming a metaphor for the inability of secrets to remain secret.
In a community almost defined by its sense of shame (financial negotiations take place between hands hidden under large sleeves), there are times when Balloon seems to argue that religious beliefs and traditions are an impediment to common sense. But then we are introduced to the condescension and guilt-tripping of the more liberal folks in town, like Drolkar’s doctor. Not unlike in Todd Solondz’s abortion movie Palindromes, people on both sides of the issue suck at being relevant and helpful to someone for whom it’s a practical concern, not a hypothetical or ideological one. And, from sex and politics to sexual politics, Dargye is little help to Drolkar, with his patriarchal inability/unwillingness to weigh her concerns as equal to his.
It makes sense, then, that Dargye is not as sensitive as Drolkar to the living metaphor that is their farm. They raise sheep. Specifically, they breed them, otherwise keeping them penned up and culling the ones who can’t procreate. While her boys sulk about balloons that inevitably pop or float away, Drolkar has an ongoing demonstration of her worth and expectations right outside her window.