A family must balance modernity and tradition in this Tibetan comedy-drama.
“Times have changed. No going back.”
Time marches onwards, inevitably. Cultures, tastes and opinions are ever-shifting – though some things remain constant. These are the distinctions the characters in Tibet’s wonderfully contemplative drama Balloon have to make, as they balance shifting worldviews with traditional family values and ancient beliefs.
Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) and Dargye (Jinpa) are a married couple living a quiet life in Tibet as sheep farmers, along with their three (four? Ten? I can’t remember) children. Drolkar is a fairly forward-thinking woman stifled by years of conversative upbringing: she goes to the doctor for contraceptives, but can’t bring herself to speak their name. While renovations are being done to her temple, Drolkar’s sister Drolma (Yangshik Tso) is visiting. She picks up her nephew from school, and bumps into an old flame, and the reason for her turn to Buddhism. He gives her a book he’s written, claiming to be a changed man. She’s unsure of this, as is Drolkar. But Drolkar has issues of her own to deal with, from two mischievous boys to a husband who can’t get enough of her (despite the scarcity of condoms).
The Balloon refers to a number of different parts of the story: it is the name of the book Drolma is given, and refers to the young boys’ obsession with playing with balloons. They find the condoms and blow them up, much to their parents’ chagrin. Both titular balloons are vital to the story: the book, Drolma learns, is the story of her relationship with the teacher and of supposed misunderstandings and mistakes that caused their breakup. And the secondary balloons play a major role when an unexpected death and an unwanted pregnancy hits the family.
Both veins of the story look at the way issues are looked at in a progressive way, and in a more conservative way, with Drolma curious as to the events of the book, but never finding out due to her sister’s views. Similarly, Drolkar is put in a difficult position when she has to toss up a potential abortion over the possibility that it may contain the spirit of her reincarnated father-in-law. These issues are at the heart of the movie, and define the main conflict.
The almost documentary-like style is very purposefully done, offering a taste of Tibetan life that many moviegoers simply don’t have a means of observing. The camera is handheld, and feels very fly-on-the-wall. Occasionally it is obscured, offering more of a voyeuristic take and uses subtle techniques to hide certain parts of the action. The framing is done very purposefully to make the audience feel like they’re there and not necessarily watching a scripted film.
“Live long enough and you’ll see everything.” The sentence lingers, permeating every aspect of the story. Horses are traded for motorcycles, Buddhist values are being challenged by an ever-evolving world. The times, they are a-changing, even in the most rural of places. How a culture holds on to their old values is key and although The Balloon doesn’t tell us about the country as a whole – one that must balance its own history with an ever-encroaching Chinese presence – but it does tell us about this one family. There are things to hold on to, histories and practises but like a great red balloon, sometimes you have to know when to let go.
Verdict: Poignant, quiet and subtle, The Balloon is a charming, realistic take on rural Tibetan life that’s well worth a watch.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: Oh we don’t talk about that
Violence: A scrap in the sheep dip
Motorcycles: Better than horses
Dargye: Damn dude, get a cold shower or something
Burnt book: Did she actually put her hand in a fireplace for this scene?
Director: Pema Tseden
Writer: Pema Tseden
Sonam Wangmo – Drolkar
Jina – Dargye
Yangshik Tso – Drolmar