Although the film is slated as Chinese, it is in essence Tibetan (although writer-director Tseden Pema is Chinese): it’s set in rural Tibet and, I believe, most of the dialogue is Tibetan. Key is the Buddhist religion which, alongside China’s ‘one child’ policy, introduced in 1985, are the restraints on the ordinary people’s lives we observe. From a western perspective (I’ve never been to Tibet) the ‘slice of life’ aspect gives the film an ethnographic feel (which is one of the delights of ‘world’ cinema). Only three actors are listed on imdb so it’s likely most of the cast are non professionals which, along with the location shooting, adds to the authenticity of what we’re seeing. However, the film is also a melodrama, a heightened version of reality, and, as the title suggests, the balloons are representative.
The film starts with the Dargye (Jinpa – above right) arriving to provide supplies to his dad who’s tending sheep and the lively youngsters. We see the scene through what appears to be a misty lens which transpires to be a subjective shot from one of the boys through the balloon they found under their parents’ pillow. The ‘balloons’ are condoms and so links directly to the information we are give right at the start which informs us of the ‘one child’ policy introduced in 1985. Any family having more than one is fined and as this particular family are scrimping to send an elder son to college, this would have serious consequences. The family’s eldest child has become a nun after an unspecified trauma in a relationship with a man who now teaches at the boy’s college: a perfect example of melodramatic narrative coincidence. The teacher’s written an acclaimed novel, called Balloon, about that relationship which he gives to her when she picks up her brother for the summer holidays.
In the narrative, women are more important than men even though the society is patriarchal. The mother, Drolka (Sonam Wongmo), seeks sterilisation from an enlightened doctor (female) and when she becomes pregnant the drama reaches a crisis. There’s some humour, particularly over the young boys’ bargaining with their mates with the ‘balloons’.
The narrative deals the clashes with tradition (particularly religion) in the context of China’s oppressive policy of the time. The time is something of a confusion: at one point the dad has what looks like a small mobile phone (placing the film late in the 20th century at the earliest) and a news broadcast about the world’s first test tube baby is seen; that was in 1978. I was confused. However Lu Songye’s stunning cinematography creates a ‘bleached’ mise en scene that is accentuated with spots of colour (a red sweater, for instance). As to what the balloons represent? I think it is the future (the condoms prevent children in the future) and the teacher is trying to mend his relationship with the sister. Pema finishes with another humorous scenes featuring the boys but there’s a devastating ending too… I need to seek out the directors’ other six features.