A disappointment by Tibet’s standout filmmaker, whose beautifully-shot picture is a cautionary tale of packing too many themes into one story and losing grasp of its tone.
Dir. Pema Tseden
2019 | Tibet | Drama | 102 mins | 1.85:1 | Tibetan
PG13 (passed clean) for some sexual references
Cast: Sonam Wangmo, Jinpa, Yangshik Tso
Plot: A family struggles against the conflicting dictates of nature, spirituality, politics, and free will.
Awards: Won Sfera 1932 Award – Special Mention (Venice)
International Sales: Rediance
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: The Projector – Singapore International Film Festival 2019
Pema Tseden, who made films like Tharlo (2015) and Jinpa (2018), is one of the shining lights of Tibetan cinema, but his latest, Balloon, is as vulnerable as blown-up condoms, a plot device that introduces us, if rather efficiently, to the story of a family of sheepherders living on the remote plains of Tibet.
The children discover the ‘balloons’ under the pillow of their parents’ bed, and this sets off a chain of events that are embarrassing for everyone.
As the many government banners in the film remind us, Balloon is set in the context of China’s controversial child-rearing policy, where fines have to be paid if families exceed the number of kids they are legally allowed to have.
Hence, the introduction of condoms into the community of conservative Buddhists. The film’s central family in question becomes the intersection between themes of procreation (in a way, sex), society (in a way, politics) and religion (in a way, spirituality).
But while this complex interplay of themes may seem ripe for substantial exploration, Tseden somehow packs them all too ambitiously in a straightforward story that seems incapable of handling its nuances and disparate tones.
For instance, its spiritual elements seem pretentious to me and don’t quite gel in with its more realist style. There is also a subplot involving a nun and a schoolteacher that I feel has no significant value.
It’s a beautifully-shot picture, but Balloon’s picturesque images of a far-flung world is like a bubble, waiting to be burst.