viewed Star and Shadow Cinema, 27 Jan 22: ticket: £7
Saying: “No!” to “Sorry!”
Thinking about films with significant balloon content two movies come to mind which will be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Cinema history. Albert Morisse’s ‘The Red Balloon’ and the balloon shots in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’. The former film follows the flight of the eponymous balloon across Paris. Despite the balloon getting pricked and bursting, the film ends on an optimistic note with the balloons of Paris floating together in solidarity, emanating a feeling of hope. By contrast the shot in ‘M’ of the little girl’s balloon flying away over the tenements of Berlin denotes her murder, her death: it is a shot of sadness.
In the final section of Pema Tsedenb’s ‘Balloon’ the camera, in a series of takes, follows the career of a single red balloon in the sky across the Tibetan landscape. As it travels each of the key players, in separate shots, turn to look up and follow it. The look on their faces, searching fearlessly upwards, is reminiscent of the looks on the faces of the people in those 1930’s Russian socialist realism films made by directors such as Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko’s characters also have the same look of mannered intensity as they look up into the middle distance towards a future where there will be socialism. This image of the resolute upward staring face became a trope for the shaping of the new man by socialism; it was of course also picked up and exploited by the propaganda posters and films representing the Chinese Communist Party.
‘Balloon’ is an extraordinary film with an unexpected ending. The remarkable aspect of Tsedenb’s balloon shot end sequence is that it has little to do with the narrative of Tsedenb’s film, whose scenario ends on a downbeat uncertain note. But then tagged on the storyline is the above final sequence comprising a series of metaphysical shots symbolising….what? Does Tsedenb want to point to Lang’s bleakness or Morisse’s vision of hope? Given the Chinese communist party’s recent interest in endings (they recently insisted on ‘Fight Club’s’ ending being changed to make it more optimistic), perhaps Tsedenb edited this final montage with the intention of rending the film acceptable to the Party censors? The use of the ‘heroic socialist look’ in his final sequence buying him protection against the Party’s perception of the film as promoting negativity, something particularly important in relation to the sensitive subject of Thibet.
‘Balloon’s’ grounding is in the life of pastoral herders in Thibet; we are set down amidst these people seeing their way of life, their religious culture their family and intimate relations. The underlying theme of Tsedenb’s movie is reproduction and its close relational concepts of fertility and replication. ‘Balloon’ is set at the time when Chinese ‘one child’ policy was enforceable law in Thibet. The narrative line binds together sexual relations, animal husbandry, re-incarnation, women’s choices and perspectives on modernity. It’s a script that feels overall positive about traditional Thibetan life and beliefs, that has an implicit sympathy with the people, in a manner that’s not expected in a Chinese produced and financed movie.
Digression: Interesting that in the sphere of the filmmaking which is regarded by totalitarian regimes (at least until the advent of social media) as a key propaganda means for reaching and speaking to the ‘masses’, there is often some space for renegade non orthodox directors to make their mark: Tarkovsky, Parajanov, Wayda, and the Czech new wave film makers of the early ‘60’s whose films collectively moved way beyond the bounds of the regime’s political orthodoxy. In China, besides Tsedenb, there is also Bi Gan – though he hasn’t recently made a film. All these countries have film schools regarded as centres of prime excellence, and there seems to be within these centres a core of integrity and influence, that afford the protection that allows some film makers to develop their own filmic path, both political and aesthetic. The films of these directors don’t usually get wide distribution in the home land (if at all), but they are exported and distributed worldwide.
‘Balloon’ has one decisive moment. A event that changes everything in the play out of the script. It’s a moment in which everything stops, which has consequences that determine the courses of the lives of Tsedenb’s characters. Dargye, the herder, violently slaps his wife Drolkar across the face as they sit up talking on their bed.
This action is visceral: the sound as much as the picture, the flat of his hand striking against the side of her face, the crack of a whip, she crumples.
Drolkar has just told him, that against his wishes she hasn’t ruled out having an abortion. An abortion will prevent Dargye’s hope that the soul of his recently deceased father will reincarnate in her growing foetus. This sudden violence of the husband on his wife has the effect of collapsing her world, concentrating her essence into a zen moment of realisation where everything is seen clearly seen anew.
From the script we see there is strength and integrity in the way Drolkar lives her life. She does what she has to do, her duty, as there is no other way to survive. Violence, intimidation, the imposition of Dargye’s will has no part in her way of living. Her husband’s blow ends everything: the foetus the marriage the relationship with her children. And Dargye also knows that this is so; that he has brought everything to a close, that after hitting Drolkar there is no going back. No apology no words of contrition can take back what he has done. It has finality. After the blow from her husband there remains only for Drolkar to arrange her affairs and quit the farm. Dargye saying: “Sorry!” changes nothing. Drolkar has had a moment of realisation.
Tsedemb films with intent and integrity. Shooting in Thibet doesn’t prompt him to do a lot of landscape – meaningless drone shots – filling out the scenario with fake metaphore. In fact the landscape is shot sparsely, mainly featuring as a grey scrubby background to the story. What Tsedemb does do with the camera is striking. Much of the film has a documentary feel. His camera is chained to the ground, operating in the midst of life: the sheep, the meals, the bedroom, the clinic. Interspersed are different types of shots that work through reflections: action seen through windows, pools, hazy indistinct images that suggest parallel worlds, perhaps the worlds of the souls waiting on the fringes to be re-incarnated.
Before the Uyghur’s in Xinjiang, the Thibets too were subjected to Han-isation. I don’t know if it was as brutal as the current situation, but Balloon does give some substance to a people now all but forgotten in the West – and perhaps in China too.
adrin neatrour email@example.com