Pema Tseden was the first-ever Tibetan student admitted to the renowned Beijing Film Academy, after applying for a scholarship in 2002. Since then, he has established himself as one of the region’s most compelling and interesting cinematic voices, becoming the frontman for the emergence of Tibetan New Wave, a grouping of arthouse directors that exemplify life in Tibetan areas.
He was the first director to film a movie completely in Tibetan language in China and has worked with the likes of Wong Kar-wai, who produced his 2018 film Jinpa, which won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival that year.
His debut feature The Silent Holy Stones, which was originally a short film directed at Beijing Film Academy, won him acclaim and the award for Best Directorial Debut at the 25th Golden Rooster Awards in 2005, while he has also picked up awards at the Chicago International Film Festival (for Balloon in 2019) and the Shanghai International Film Festival (for The Silent Holy Stones in 2005).
Before he delved into films, however, he was a primary school teacher and, later, a civil servant who wrote stories and novels. He was the only one of his siblings to finish school, after which he went to university to study Tibetan language and literature. One of his early novels, Temptation, was published in 1997 while he worked in the government of Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai.
In his latest film, Balloon, which releases in Chinese cinemas today (November 20), Tseden delves into these past lives, something which he has continuously done throughout his film career. The story revolves around a pastoral family, with mother and father Drolkar and Dargye, whose way of life is put in jeopardy by the stringent fines that will accompany the birth of another child. Opening on the landscape where we will spend most of the film, the austere and beautiful highlands of Qinghai, the idyllic nature of life amidst such overwhelming nature is repeatedly disturbed by seemingly minor encounters, which eventually add up to tragedy.
“The origin of this story actually has something to do with my time in film school, about 10 years ago,” Tseden says on the inspiration behind his latest feature. “I would go to see friends from my hometown at Minzu University and I would pass through [Beijing tech hub] Zhongguancun. Once, I saw a balloon floating in the wind, probably around the same season as now, late autumn or winter. I was attracted by the image, and I thought a red balloon is a particularly suitable image for a film. There are many ideas related to balloons in the history of cinema, in classic films, so at that time, I made this idea relate to Tibetan life, and I thought about a white balloon.”
The white balloon in question is a condom. It’s introduced to proceedings almost immediately, as three generations of men in the family spot one fluttering in the wind while out drinking tea. Later, Drolkar, the mother of three boys, goes to town to ask the local clinic for condoms. We discover that she and Dargye have quickly used up the condoms that she had been given previously, though the female doctor does offer Drolkar one more, just in case. This singular condom acts as both a comic and a tragic symbol in the action that is to come.
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For example, Drolkar’s sister Shangchu Drolma, a buddhist nun, discovers the condom beneath Drolkar’s pillow and has no idea what it is, shedding light on the innocence and carefree nature of her life, separated from worries about sex and pregnancy.
Shangchu Drolma’s story is largely left unexplained, with our only inkling of why she turned to life as a nun coming from a brief encounter with an old love, Dakbum, who works as a teacher at Drolkar’s eldest son’s school. When they meet, Dakbum hand’s Drolma his novel, which he has seemingly written about her, but which she never reads; Drolkar burns it in the fire, to save her sister more pain.
The image of the teacher-writer seems to bear similarities to Tseden’s own life. “I used to be a teacher too, so there are a lot of questions about whether this character is based on me or not,” he says of the similarities. “But overall he’s a fictional character. There’s definitely some of my emotions, some shadows in there, but it’s not my own story.”
While the condom, as well as a pair of red balloons, act as central imagery in the film, the ubiquity of sheep throughout also offers an interesting counterpoint to human life. While Dargye and Drolkar are trying everything they can to keep from getting pregnant, Dargye has borrowed a friend’s ram, which he attempts to impregnate his lambs with in order to pay for his eldest son’s school tuition.
“I think it’s mainly because it is related to the lives of the characters in the film, like faith,” says Tseden of this imagery. “People also talk about why I always design concepts like reincarnation, almsgiving, life and death, and so on, which are related to Buddhism. For me it’s inseparable; that is, faith has become a part of their life. For example, these films, like Balloon, tell a story that takes place in a pastoral area, where sheep are their main source of support, the sheep are part of their life.”
During his own upbringing in Qinghai, Tseden watched films about Tibetan people, but was often left dissatisfied by what he felt was a lack of understanding of the day-to-day lives of Tibetans. “When I was a kid, you would see a lot of films about Tibet, stories about what happened in Tibet, they might be wearing Tibetan clothes, but their way of thinking is not Tibetan at all. The way they speak, right down to the dialogue, was actually more English or Chinese. So, in many ways these details, everyday details, including clothes, will have a lot of holes, a lot of things you might not be particularly comfortable looking at.”
Since bursting onto the scene with The Silent Holy Stones in 2005, Tseden has helped to define what it is to make a film about contemporary Tibetan life. His movies and those of frequent collaborators such as Sonthar Gyal and Lhapal Gyal, have helped popularize the term Tibetan New Wave in reference to stories that are shedding light on the lives of Tibetan people in and around Qinghai.
The contrast between screenings for The Silent Holy Stones and now for Balloon, which will be on general release, points to how things have advanced for minority cinema in China over the past decade and a half, Tseden feels. “For my first film, it couldn’t even enter the mainstream film market,” he says. “We just did some screenings in some big cities, and basically it was broadcast on a movie channel.”
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“There are still a lot of difficulties in the market, because of the specific uniqueness of this subject matter, such as characters speaking Tibetan, and stories about the lives of Tibetan people,” he continues. “This type of project, in a big commercial industry, will face many difficulties. In the Chinese film market, you see every year these commercial films, basically more than 90% of these are in Mandarin. The films are about the life of Han Chinese and it’s difficult to enter such a large market and to find a suitable position.”
But, that situation is slowly changing, and for Tseden its impact is potentially wide-reaching. “Through years of effort, we actually have a better and perhaps more human understanding of Tibet.”
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