Tibetan director discusses the future of ethnic minority film in China
Published: Nov 04, 2020 06:33 PM

Promotional material for Tibetan-language film Balloon Photo: Courtesy of Pema Tseden

After the two boisterous sons of sheep farmers Dargye and his wife Drolkar naively play with their parents' pack of condoms thinking they are balloons and enrage the entire village, Drolkar finds she is pregnant again. 

Making a choice between one's religious faith and the pressures of reality becomes a very difficult choice for the Tibetan woman living in the 1990s.

Based on the family's poor economic conditions during that era, Drolkar is hesitant to keep the baby. But meanwhile, as a pious Buddhist, she does not deny her husband's belief that the new baby is the reincarnation of his dead father, which makes him want to keep the baby.

"Everyone faces a dilemma when their souls encounter a tough but practical choice, and that is what I want to express through the film," Pema Tseden, director of the Tibetan-language film Balloon and the judge of the ONE PROJECT 2020 at The One International Women's Film Festival, told the Global Times. 

Tibetan director Pema Tseden Photo: Courtesy of The One International Women's Film Festival

Following its debut at The One International Women's Film Festival in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, in September, Balloon is scheduled for wide release in the Chinese mainland theaters on November 20. It will be the second film focusing on the story of one of China's minority ethnic groups, following the Xinjiang film A First Farewell, to hit mainland cinemas since their reopening in July. 

Arrival of inspiration  

Red balloons make an appearance throughout the film to symbolize condoms. Pema Tseden said the idea came to him while he was on the way to Beijing' s Minzu University of China back when he was studying at the Beijing Film Academy. 

When he saw a red balloon flying in the sky - an object that reminded him of a condom - thoughts of women facing the choice of giving more births in poverty  began to bubble up in his imagination and the character of Drolkar was born. 

"When inspiration comes, I will immediately connect it with the Tibetan areas where I grew up and want to make them more specific, so I started to write a script immediately and adapted it into a novel later," said Pema Tseden.

"Although some non-ethnic minority directors have also filmed similar movies, they sometimes still lack that certain something," Pema Tseden said.

Growing up in Tibetan-inhabited area in Qinghai Province, Pema Tseden said he feels he has an advantage when it comes to making a Tibetan film. 

According to the director, 90 percent of the people living in the Tibet Autonomous Region are Tibetan Buddhists, and that Tibetan women might understand and have more empathy for the character of Drolkar because the protagonist represents a group of women in Tibet who are open-minded and have received higher education but are also religious. 

"These women have an awakening awareness and they struggle inside."

Pema Tseden noted that cinematography should be tightly linked to a film's theme. In order to express Drolkar's inner anxiety, Pema Tseden chose to film with a hand-held camera so scenes would feel a bit shaky. 

Having directed many films taking place in Tibetan areas, such as Tharlo and Jinpa, Pema Tseden pointed out that his films all have something in common, which is that they are all about identity.

For example, the audience in China and overseas who watched the film Balloon can all understand the film. But interestingly, they have different views to the protagonist's choice.

When Balloon screened at the Venice Film Festival, many audiences who saw the film, especially Catholics, later said they thought Drolkar should keep the baby, while Chinese audiences who watched it at the ONE festival said they felt the opposite. 

Staying pure

Balloon has been nominated at many international film festivals and won the Best Film award at Japan's 20th Tokyo Film Festival and China's 2nd Hainan Island International Film Festival earlier in 2020. It is scheduled to be released in Japan on January 22, 2021. 

Although Balloon has achieved a lot of honors, Pema Tseden remains modest and rational. He pointed out that directors should not film movies about Chinese ethnic minorities in an attempt to earn an award. 

"A good film is a film that is pure," he said.

When it comes to the long run, Pema Tseden is optimistic about the future of Chinese ethnic minority films as he believes that they have great potential for exploring different themes and there has been an increase of ethnic minority directors entering the field in recent years. 

Pema Tseden pointed out the biggest challenge for Tibetan films is the market as most moviegoers in China are used to seeing Putonghua (Standard Chinese) and English films, but Tibetan language films are still less common, not only in China but also around the world. 

"But a very good story can break through the language barrier," the director said.