Balloon review – beauty and melancholy in Tibet’s sheep-herding life

Writer-director Pema Tseden tells this story of a clash between modernity and tradition as a woman is dismayed to find she is pregnant

The latest of Pema Tseden’s empathic and intimate portraits of Tibetan pastoral life begins with an intriguing cloudiness. A misty, blurry view of lush farmland accompanied by childlike chatter is seen through the inflated skin of two “balloons”, which are revealed to be two blown-up condoms. This mix of tranquillity, playfulness and a touch of melancholy becomes the evocative thread that runs through this leisurely film where opposing doctrines are explored in a fascinating, non-didactic fashion.

Revolving around a ram-rearing family headed by two patriarchs, the film is, at first, deceptively male-centric. Dargye (Jinpa), the husband, talks often of buying virile stock for breeding. Staying in the background, his wife, Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), is smilingly docile – yet her character slowly becomes the film’s central figure, and the site of contrasting credos. As the couple already have three children, Drolkar is dismayed to discover that she’s pregnant again. She feels pressure to get an abortion since mainland China has imposed family planning on its population, which includes contested areas such as Tibet. On the other hand, her husband’s Buddhist beliefs dictate that his recently deceased father is now reincarnated inside Drolkar’s womb.

While armed with plenty of social critique, the beauty of Balloon goes beyond this tug-of-war between modernity and tradition. The narrative is full of circles, from the cheeky balloons to the round, reflective surface of a filled washbasin on which Drolkar dreamily catches a glimpse of her younger self. Instead of providing simplistic answers to Drolkar’s dilemma, Balloon ends on a note of enigmatic wonder as the characters witness a spectacle among the clouds. The moment is spiritual and transformative, as if real-life problems have also leapt into thin air.

• Balloon is released on 24 September in cinemas.


Phuong Le

The GuardianTramp

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