Tibetan director discusses his latest films, characters, love stories and ambiguity of meaning…
The last two years were especially busy for Pema Tseden, having his two latest films premiered at 2018 & 2019 Venice Film Festival. Five years after Tharlo caught international attention, Pema Tseden keeps negotiating between his role as a university professor in China, a pioneering filmmaker of Tibetan cinema and one of the globally celebrated film auteurs. Both Jinpa and Balloon had made it to 13th Five Flavours Asian Film Festival’s program, giving the audience a rare opportunity to see Tibetan films. Q&As extended well beyond the scheduled time but Pema Tseden enjoyed answering all the questions and chatting with the audience. When we met for a chat at the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, he seemed tired but very calm, ready to discuss his cinematic as well as literary work.
In a very short time span, you managed to complete two features. In your opinion what is the biggest difference between them?
Difference lies in style of narrative, Balloon assumes a more realist perspective and Jinpa drifts away from realist elements into exploring older, oral, circular style of storytelling. The story presented in the first title is more contemporary, while in the second it is more timeless, chimeric and bizarre. Jinpa is closer to my experience as a writer, with regard to narrative style a story like that could fit Tibetan literary tradition.
Yes, when I was watching Jinpa it made me think of your short stories, such as A New Golden Corpse Tale: Gun, in which a lone man goes on a quest to a faraway place to complete some mission. Balloon, on the other hand, seems to be narratively connected to your previous film, The Search (2009), with an unfulfilled, pessimistic love story between a teacher and a village girl. In Balloon, it is as if we see them ten years later. I’m curious what is the attitude towards romantic relationships in Tibetan culture?
It depends on each person’s understanding and treatment of love, there is no specific attitude in Tibet. Individual behaviour might be influenced by faith or communication habits such as temperate or indirect expression of emotions. If one person is too direct and intense, it might discourage the other or make him or her shy. In Balloon I have incorporated a love story from the past and characters’ attitudes towards an old love, maybe it is a bit different from how people would face it in other cultures.
It is very interesting that in both films the face of a woman in love is concealed, either with a scarf in The Search and with a long hat in Balloon.
In The Search it has to do with the situation the female character finds herself in. She is on the journey to let go off the burden that weighs on her mind. She carries with her an aspiration that becomes kind of a mask, it is impossible to see her face. When she finally takes off the scarf, it also plays on the audience’s expectations towards what is hidden, so with such character design I wanted to emphasize this feeling. In Balloon, the hat is also a kind of theatrical prop. Usually, Buddhist nun would have two hats – one for winter and one for summer. This hat is carefully selected, it would exactly match her whole attire – dress as well as shoes. When we were choosing her costume it was to reflect her mental state. Her heart is still entangled in the past love, she cannot let go off it and find release. The hat covers her eyes, so there are some details and points she does not notice. Her knowledge of herself and the world is limited.
In Balloon, the Buddhist nun looks a bit like a man, as if her sex was not clearly defined. Such an effect is also highlighted by the hat, because we cannot see her face.
Sexually she is neutral, neither male nor female. She left home to become a Buddhist nun and let go off all things secular. She renounced the idea of romantic love and the realm of ordinary people’s everyday life. Monks and nuns cannot think about relationships, sex and romantic love. They maintain indifference towards the secular world, positive or negative emotions, and devote themselves to spiritual development.
In your films, most of the love stories are unfulfilled and pessimistic. In Balloon even though the married couple is very happy together but there is also suffering because of selfishness and inability to see the other person’s needs they cannot communicate. The married couple in Balloon is quite similar to the one in Ala Changso, 2018 film directed by Sonthar Gyal. who worked on several of your films as a cinematographer. How would you compare these two films?
I think the subject matter of both films is similar. Both stories focus on a badly damaged relationship, imperfect marriage and shattered family.
Although your films and short stories are often permeated by sadness, there is also a lot of humour in them such as when in your latest work two kids take condom for a balloon, which leads to a lot of funny misunderstandings. Are these sometimes the observations from daily life in Tibet?
When it comes to a sense of humour it depends on the personality. Nevertheless, it is true that in Tibet people often make jokes, friendly tease each other. It is connected to people’s temperament and self-expression, so others would not get mad about the joke but treat it as something that brings cheerfulness. Making fun of each other is a way of expressing emotions and establishing ties with other people, getting to know each other. It runs counter to the popular, stereotypical image of Tibet as one big monastery where people contemplate and meditate, there is no place for humour and cheerfulness. In reality, even if every day does not always bring happiness, but there is a lot of humour, so life is joyful and full of meaning. For example, the condom in Balloon becomes two completely different things depending on the perspective. For grown-ups condom has a pragmatic significance, it is connected to the one-child policy and contemporary reality but children do not understand that. For them condom becomes a balloon, a toy, an object that belongs to the realm of imagination and play, its practical function disappears. The title Balloon highlights this ambiguity of meaning.
Jinpa gives a great acting performance in dramatic as well as comedic roles. How did you start working together?
Tibetan filmmakers’ circle is very small, so everybody knows each other. Jinpa and I both come from Amdo county. When I first went into film directing, he was still in acting school. Afterwards, there was a fitting role for him in my film so we started working together. In the future, I would like to work with professional actors, because they are easier to direct.
There is a lot of Tibetan living in Qinghai province. I wanted to ask about FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, do you think it would have an influence on the development of Tibetan cinema and training of young Tibetan filmmakers?
I suppose it will exert influence but I think five years ago when Tharlo was noticed internationally it might have inspired young Tibetan more directly, a work like that maybe pushed them to try out filmmaking. Before a lot of young Tibetans were into writing poems, but they noticed the film could be a very fascinating art form, more fitting the present times.
One last question, Wong Kar-wai’s company Jet Tone is one of the producers of Jinpa. I was wondering if the sunglasses that Jinpa wears in the film are Wong Kar-wai’s own?
They are not Wong Kar-wai’s sunglasses, they were a part of the original character design to highlight Jinpa’s problem with eyesight, his distorted vision. However, some people had already asked me similar questions.