As a Tibetan director dedicated to illuminating, with love and insight, the everyday culture of his contested homeland, navigating China’s labyrinthine and often-changing filmmaking approval processes cannot be an easy task. And yet, over the course of now seven films, despite or possibly because of those restrictions, Pema Tseden has amassed the most quietly inspiring of filmographies, his novelist’s eye yielding storytelling far richer than just ethnography or social observation. His beautiful, funny and tragic newest film, “Balloon,” which follows the trail of his last, “Jinpa,” in premiering in the Venice Horizons sidebar before traveling on to Toronto, is a case in point — both a gorgeously intimate family drama and an idiosyncratic artistic statement flecked with humor and sorrow, but alive always to the co-existence of the banal with the spiritual.
Three generations of a Tibetan farming family, represented by a grandfather (Konchok), father Dargye (Jinpa) and Dargye’s two rambunctious young sons (Druklha Dorje and Palden Nyima), are out on a hillock tending to their herd of sheep. The men sup tea and chat, while the boys, some way off, spy on them through the fuzzy filter of a translucent white balloon. Only it’s not a balloon — it’s a condom that the boys discovered nestled under their parents’ pillow. It is the early 1980s, China has just imposed its draconian population-control policies and the lusty Dargye, already a father three times over, has to make sure he does not get his wife, Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), pregnant again. The fine for having another child would cripple the floundering farm.
At first “Balloon” seems like it will be a light-hearted dramedy to which Drolkar will be largely background, padding around in traditional dress and soundless domesticity while Dargye strives to stay ahead of the curve. He sells a sheep to pay for education for his teenage son, Jamyang (Dudul); he borrows a ram from a friend to, in pointed contrast to his own situation, inseminate as many of his ewes as possible. But the sands of the story shift underfoot and settle around Drolkar, who is gradually revealed to be less demure and subservient than she seems, especially in her interactions with a forward-thinking female doctor (Kangchen Tsering) who works at the clinic in town.
Faith and modernity also collide when Drolkar’s sister (Yangshik Tso), a Buddhist nun, goes to collect Jamyang from school one day and discovers that his bespectacled, sad-eyed teacher (Kunde) is the man she once loved; his perceived mistreatment was responsible for her decision to devote herself to the spiritual life. Just as surprised by the encounter, he gives her a book he has written — we later discover it tells the story of their relationship and contains an account of the “misunderstanding” that drove them apart. Then the first little tragedy of this increasingly bittersweet tale occurs: She never gets to read the book’s potential revelations, as Drolkar interferes for prudish reasons of her own.
As the gently paced saga continues, a sudden death and an unwanted pregnancy occur, events linked and complicated by the Buddhist belief that the souls of dead ancestors can be reincarnated in the bodies of the unborn. All the while the business of life goes on, through storms and blackouts, drunken interludes, dream sequences and a cleverly staged fight between neighbors that ends up with both flailing around waist-deep in a trench full of sheep dip.
The images are full of wind and life, guttering lamplight and scattering sheep, scored to Peyman Yazdanian’s haunting, tinkling music and captured in Lu Songye’s handheld photography, which is full of little surprises and inventions. Several times he subtly reworks the traditional shot-reverse-shot dynamic when within the frame he finds some partition or window frame that can, with a to-and-fro motion, alternately obscure and reveal the speaker and the spoken to. There are frequent visual references to myopia or failing sight — the teacher’s glasses, the cloudy windows, the images glimpsed through an inflated tube of latex — all of which contribute a subtle symbolism about people separated and partially blinded by barriers that don’t physically exist or, if they do, can be as easily swept aside as a hand draws back a drying sheet on a clothesline.
Such are the invisible bonds of faith, superstition and prejudice. They both cleave the family (beautifully played by the director’s regular cast members Jinpa and Sonam Wangmo especially) and connect them, a contradiction finally illustrated by a lovely, “Magnolia”-esque sequence where all the characters in their different locations are united by a skyward glance that tracks, to quote Tseden’s spiritual sibling Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the flight of a red balloon.