These Objects that Transform Us: Into the Material and Immaterial World of Pema Tseden

Clémence Henry


In his latest film, Balloon (2019), Pema Tseden paints a vivid picture of a changing Tibetan society. At first glance, the plot is simple. Drolkar, a herder from the high pastures of Amdo, in eastern Tibet, becomes pregnant with her fourth child, even though she has tried to use a contraceptive method that was previously unknown in the rural world of pastoralists: the condom. She immediately sees the delicate consequences that this new birth would entail: the imposition of a fine for families that do not respect the family planning policy, and the difficulty of providing her children with good material living conditions and education. She goes to the local dispensary, where patients are greeted by a billboard promoting birth control in order to make quality citizens. There, she is tempted to follow the advice given to her by the young female Tibetan doctor Druktso: “to abort”. The circumstance of her father-in-law’s death makes the situation inextricable, because for those around her, her pregnancy can only be a sign that the grandfather has chosen her womb to reincarnate in his family. Rejecting the child to be born would be equal to committing an important misdeed as it would be same as killing a living being, and more precisely one’s father-in-law reincarnation. However, Pema Tseden does not limit himself to presenting the prosaic implications of the belief in reincarnation for Tibetans, nor does he deal with the question of abortion in an essentially traditional Buddhist and rural society. He does not oppose the two more than he takes sides. However, when Drolkar goes to the doctor Druktso to take a pregnancy test, Drolkar is filmed in the same shot as a sheep tied to the end of a long rope in the courtyard of the dispensary, the latter may deploy its energy in all directions, but it is finally brought down violently by the rope that holds it to its stake. Drolkar remains fatally tied to her status and condition as a woman, always thwarted by shackles no matter what choice she makes.

Balloon also discusses the status of objects that were previously exogenous to Tibetan society, of which the condom appears here as the prototype. This issue is not new for the film director. In his first film, The Silence of the Sacred Stones, Pema Tseden depicted the daily life of a young monk, fascinated by the television he had just secured in his cell at the monastery, which turned him away, one can think, from the serenity that religious life requires. In Tharlo, he investigated the quest for identity by portraying a Tibetan shepherd who has to obtain an identity card, the protagonist, who tries to establish his identity in this way, is finally transformed and disfigured through the document, which he eventually fails to get. The status of these objects is ambivalent because of their performing capacities. And yet, whether Tibetans like it or not, they arrive right on their doorstep like the condoms that the doctor from the dispensary leaves at Drolkar’s door, without even meeting her. On the film’s poster, Drolkar seems to be at almost full-term pregnancy with a huge belly. Upon closer inspection, she is actually holding a balloon of the same color against her red clothing, creating the illusion that it is part of the silhouette of her body.

In Balloon, it is also this condom that prompts Dargye to engage in sexual activity without refraining his impulses. But Drolkar gently mocks her husband, whose name means “development”, comparing him with this famous ram, borrowed from a neighbor to impregnate the sheep in their herd. Pema Tseden uses the animal to underline, sometimes the societal configurations, sometimes a singular behavior or personality. The characters in the movie also fail to correctly interpret these new objects, “you do have glasses, you must be a good person” comments Drolkar naively when she meets her sister’s former lover, although it is obvious that his behavior has ruined their relationship.

Eventually, it is perhaps in the new generation that the director places his trust. He seems more confident that Tibetans elders may not have the primacy of material development, but their children do not lack ideas to interpret and appropriate the products of modernity. The mischievous character of the children is thus expressed in their redirecting the original function of the condom and transforming it into a balloon. It is also Drolkar’s eldest son of, thanks to his understanding of the Chinese language, who explains to his grandfather the images on television of the first “test tube baby”, which puzzles the old man. “Turn that off,” the grandfather orders, immediately reciting a prayer. In the meantime, in the adult world, in which decision making plays a central role, Drolkar and Dargye’s conversation runs into a wall. While Drolkar’s husband begs her to keep the child, promising to stop drinking and smoking and to raise the baby, she continues to beat the dust on the chuba hanging on laundry line, turning her back to her husband and separated from him by these clothes. When having a discussion with doctor Druktso, a wooden pole in the center of the camera separates the two women. “I only have one child and I am happy about that, he will be well educated. Women are not only there to bring children into the world,” adds the young woman who seems to have integrated the government’s feminist message. But, in spite of their commonalties (as both are young Tibetan women), is this doctor in a white coat really able to communicate with the woman in a black chuba?

The director’s questioning of these tangible, solid, and material novelties continues and finds an echo in a reflection on the immaterial world. What is the place of faith and belief in Tibetan society today? After the last funeral rites have been performed for the grandfather, his son Dargye goes to a lama to ask for indications about his father’s rebirth. The Buddhist master affirms that he will return to his family. However, the camera shot hides the lama from the viewer behind the door and the curtain. “What if the lama was mistaken?” Drolkar dares to ask her husband. She dreamt that one of gentle sheep of her flock was giving birth and perhaps she has concluded that the grandfather will be reborn in the guise of a lamb, in the family. “A lama never makes mistakes,” her husband retorts. But can the Tibetan society still believe in what we can’t see? Shortly after the grandfather dies, the imposing incense burner placed at the entrance of the house, shaken by the wind, sees its flame die. After Drolkar makes her last visit to the clinic, the tiny butter lamp on the edge of the family bed goes out too.

Desperate, the young woman envies her sister for having made the choice to enter the monastery, “If I were like you, at least I would have no more doubts”. However, her younger sister, who has chosen a new life as a nun, appears to be a tortured character, plagued by uncertainty ever since her former lover attempted to reconnect with her. In this samsaricworld, marred by the four sufferings (birth, old age, illness and death), the entry into religion thus appears to be more like a desire to escape than an assumed choice or an appropriate solution in the director’s eyes. For those who remain in samsara, it is futile to try to escape the absurd and painful nature of existence, as Drolkar returns home and prepares to announce to her husband that she does not wish to keep the child she is carrying, he is busy tying up the strings of meat from one of the animals in his herd over a window. This scene may remind us of an edifying excerpt from the well-known Tibetan work of the scholar and vagabond teacher Dza Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), The words of my perfect master(Kun bzang bla ma’i zhal lung), wherein he relates a story about a disciple of the Buddha who while begging for food, meets a father who is holding a child on his lap. This man feasts on a fish and throws stones at a dog who is chewing the fishbone. In his clairvoyance, the disciple sees that the fish had been the man’s father in this lifetime, the dog was the reincarnation of his mother, and that an enemy he had killed in his past life had been reborn, by a return of karma, as his son. He then felt the desire to laugh at the machinations of karma.

The place of animals in Pema Tseden’s films appears to be a leitmotif of his work, i.e. the sheep hit by the truck driver in Jinpa, which leads the eponymous character through a long quest for purification of his act, or the suicide by proxy of the old man in Old Dog, who murders his dog in order to save it from being stolen or sold for a large sum of money to a Han Chinese buyer. In Balloon, Dargye sells the ewe he has fattened to a butcher shop run by some local Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslim) to pay for his oldest son’s school fees. It is the same ewe that Drolkar said was very gentle and that, in her dream, had given birth to a lamb who Drolkar thinks could be the grandfather’s rebirth. However, once the transaction is completed, young Jamyang is no longer sure that he wants to continue his studies. In these three films, the death or killing of the animal appears both as inevitable for the survival of a family or a culture but also has the aspect of a sin in that it finally brings suffering for the killer, whether it is the old herder killing his dog, or the father selling his ewe.

Finally, beyond the philosophical considerations, we can hear a plea from Pema Tseden to give more attention to the child in the traditional Tibetan world. The viewer discovers at the beginning of the film that Jamyang, is considered the reincarnation of his paternal grandmother. It is not uncommon, in fact, for Tibetans to look for physical signs in newborns or young children to identify a deceased relative. Here, the teenager has a mole on his back, the same as his grandmother. It is the proof that her namshe (consciousness) has chosen to return to the same family, in the bodily envelope of Jamyang. The two younger children, fascinated by the mole and perhaps envious of the preferential treatment that Jamyang receives from his grandfather (the husband of the late grandmother), ask their older brother for permission to touch it. In a dreamlike scene, the two young boys snatch it from him and run away with it, in an attempt to re-establish an equality of rights by the simple fact of their birth. In fact, while the older boy is in high school, the two younger ones, simply named by their parents with the expression “boys” are sent with the animals to the pastures, although they are old enough to attend the first classes. After the grandfather’s death, his corpse is wrapped in a white sheet, with the legs firmly tied in a meditation position and placed in the back of the van that will take it to the cremation ground. The youngest child, still bewildered by that sight, asks if his dear grandfather will really never come back, “Say your prayers and shut up,” his father replies instead. However, Dargye is not all-powerful. He fails to prevent his wife from leaving their home and family, to accompany her sister to the monastery, perhaps to devote herself to the religious life. He is presented as miserable, drinking a bottle of water in solitude, sitting in the pouring rain at the foot of the overwhelming statue of Wencheng Kongjo, the Chinese wife of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo (7th century), placed at the center of a public square. Alone, having given up alcohol and cigarettes, he will educate his children.

To underline the importance that Pema Tseden gives to children, there are two scenes that echo each other, by which he alerts us to the need to listen to what children want to tell us. The first is a comic scene. One sees Dargye and the father of their young neighbor – played by Shide Nyima, a humorist well known to Tibetans and the main character in his previous film, Tharlo, confront each other. Dargye and Drolkar’s two boys of have indeed found and stolen a condom under their parents’ pillow, mistaking it for an inflatable balloon. After having blown it to the max, to prove that it is a balloon indeed, they have quickly exchanged this uncommon balloon for the magnificent red whistle of their young neighbor friend. This scene of exchange between the children ends with the sentence, thrown out like a challenge by the youngest one, and which finds thereafter a case of resonance in the posture of the adults “the one who regrets is a dog”. Indeed, the acts committed – abortion or not, killing a sheep or not – are so engaging for their perpetrators that giving in to regret would reduce them to a miserable condition. When the father of their young neighbor discovers the real nature of the toy his son bartered, he speaks out in front of the other men of the community against the irresponsibility of the one who left this condom lying around and which has now brought him shame in front of other members of his family. Incidentally, this object does not have a well-defined name in Tibetan (the Tibetan “shubs” simply means case or sheath), but the context disambiguates. The agitated men come to blows in front of their children, and one of the young boys blows his whistle trying to put an end to the fight. But the grown-ups don’t pay much attention to them. The second scene that illustrates Tseden’s attention towards children closes the film. The father has finally brought back from the city the bright red balloons that the two youngest children have been dreaming of. While one bursts, the other is carried away by the wind. One of the child blows with all his might in his whistle to try to stop it but in vain. While one possible future, displaying the color of the Chinese Communist Party, has already exploded, the other is taking an indeterminate path. All the characters in the film, as a microcosm of Tibetan society in all its diversity, appear in succession in the same movement, raising their heads to watch this second balloon flying away, a fragile destiny tossed about by a wind over which they have no control.



Clémence Henry holds a master’s degree in “History, Societies and Territories”, specializing in the Tibetan language, from the University of Languages and Civilizations (INALCO – Paris) (2013) and a master’s degree in Sociology of Migrations and Interethnic Relations from Paris-Diderot (2011). Her research topics have focused on the Tibetan diaspora in France and Chinese educational policies in Tibetan areas.