Cast: Jinpa, Sonam Wangmo
Official Selection, 2019 Venice Film Festival
Official Selection, 2019 Toronto International Film Festival
Official Selection, 2019 Busan International Film Festival
BALLOON opens with the gauzy vignetted lens of pastoral romance. Only, this cloudy beauty soon reveals itself as the unlikeliest of camera filters–a milky white condom. This is quintessential Pema Tseden–simple, provocative frame-shifting through objects whose meanings turn upside down as they exchange hands, revealing profound power dynamics. In his seventh film BALLOON, the quasi-comical condom becomes sly narrative motor as contraceptive turns contraband, and two sons use their parents’ precious dwindling supply as toys, putting one Tibetan sheepraising couple at risk of financial ruin for violating China’s family planning policy.
The first filmmaker to craft features entirely in Tibetan, Tseden sets BALLOON on the high plains of Qinghai lake, where motorcycles mix with sheep, kids have endless radius to roam, and swarthy Dargye and his wife Drolkar (Tseden regulars Jinpa and Sonam Wangmo) wrangle and breed sheep to get by. As the missing condoms trigger unexpected consequences, fertility as a cultural commodity is set into play–from barren ewes, a celibate daughter-turned-monk, sheep-mating as entertainment, Britain’s test tube babies, and Drolkar and Dargye’s tension over an unwanted pregnancy which a lama predicts will deliver a reincarnated patriarch.
Any film that opens with a condom-as-filter is clearly unafraid to play, and BALLOON transgresses conventional optics, dislodging our role as passive bystander. A pole bisects the screen, frustrating our view. A tense business deal is settled inside a muffled shared sleeve. A birthmark turns into a runaway sticker. A window ingeniously adds a new dimension to the shot-reverse-shot. Tseden (Old Dog, SDAFF ‘12) wants us to consider what isn’t seen, whether from the spiritual realm, or perhaps, from China, causing low-grade havoc in Tseden’s stories as it exerts unrelenting pressure from far away, always out of frame.