Wind (随风飘散, Dadren Wanggyal, 2020)

“Who made these rules?” an exasperated young woman asks, fed up with her constant stigmatisation for something that was in any case not her fault. Set in a small Tibetan village, Dadren Wanggyal’s Wind (随风飘散, suífēng piāosàn) takes aim at entrenched misogyny while suggesting that the traditional patriarchal social codes by which the village operates have caused nothing but misery not only for women but for their men too who all too often turn to drink and violence in order to escape their own sense of imprisonment. 

Only the wise old grandmother seems to know better. She is the only one to show kindness to Samdan (Sonam Wangmo), a young woman she discovers in her barn who has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Seven years later, Samdan and her daughter live in a small home on the outskirts of the village but are regarded as social pariahs shunned by the local women and often described as filthy witches in part because Samdan has had to resort to offering sexual favours to local men in exchange for food and assistance. Meanwhile, the old lady continues to support them sending her son Gonbo (Genden Phuntsok) to supply the pair with meat yet Gonbo is careful never to venture inside while his wife, Urgyen Tso (Wondrok Tso), remains intensely disapproving. Gonbo soon has a son, Tsering, who is sickly leading Urgyen Tso to blame Samdan and her daughter Gelak (Tsering Drolma) for his poor health. Seven years on from that, Samdan’s 14-year-old daughter becomes a surrogate sister to Gonbo’s son who is bullied by the other children because he is small and weak but is constantly misunderstood by the judgemental village society.

Both Gelak and Tsering are in various ways made to pay for their parents’ transgressions. It isn’t Gelak’s fault that she was born to a mother who was not married, though she is the one called “witch” and seemingly blamed for anything that might go wrong throughout the local area. Neither is it her fault that her mother has little other option than accept gifts from lecherous men in order to support them both in the absence of a husband in this wickedly patriarchal society. Tsering meanwhile becomes the victim of his mother’s unhappy marriage, knowing that Gonbo has someone else in his heart that he was forced to give up because a marriage was already arranged for him. It is really his moral cowardice which has led to all the subsequent problems in that he should not have begun a relationship he was not prepared to fight for nor agreed to marry another woman out of a sense of obligation and then gone on to resent her for it. For these reasons, Urgyen Tso has become a jealous woman and most of all for her sickly son while seemingly unaware of how he is treated by the other boys in the village. Gelak is the only one who stands up for him, stepping in to challenge the bullies and later carrying him home when he is seriously injured by one of their pranks yet is constantly blamed for making him ill despite Tsering’s assertions that she is not responsible and in fact helped him.   

In any case, it’s this sense of rejection and futility that eventually push Gelak towards a desire to take charge of her own destiny. The wise old lady had told her that her only option was to find a husband to care for herself and her mother, yet Gelak has had enough of unreliable men and chooses an opposing path. Using the loom the old lady had given her, she resolves to earn a living for herself ordering her mother never to accept a gift from any of the local men ever again while taking on all of the duties the man of the household would usually perform. That would include taking part in the ritual at the Holy Mountain on behalf of her family, somewhere that a woman would ordinarily not be allowed to go. Breaking with tradition she takes the men to task, asking who exactly made these rules and why while challenging the village’s essential misogyny to claim her full autonomy and right to head her own household in the absence of a man. 

Chastened they do not stop her, though as for what happens after that the answer may not be so easy. Interestingly enough, the protagonist of the story on which the film was based, The Bastard Child Gelak, was a boy, yet Gelak’s determination to claim her right to equality and liberate her mother from years of stigmatisation presents an existential challenge to the outdated social codes of the village in which women are forced to bear the brunt of male failure without recourse or remedy. Elegantly lensed amid the dramatic scenery of a Tibetan mountain village, Dadren Wanggyal’s impassioned drama paints an animated portrait of contemporary Tibetan life while arguing passionately for long-awaited social change. 


Wind streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Balloon (气球 / དབུགས་ལྒང་, Pema Tseden, 2019)

Balloon poster“The world has changed but you’re still so conservative”, a bemused doctor exclaims on learning that a female patient would rather wait around for a woman doctor than disclose a “woman’s problem” to a man. Set in ’80s Tibet, Pema Tseden’s seventh feature, Balloon (气球, Qìqiú / དབུགས་ལྒང་), finds itself at the intersection of multiple worlds and changing times as a small family is quietly torn apart by societal forces beyond its control.

As the film opens, the family’s two youngest sons are busy spying on dad and grandad through the fuzziness of an overinflated balloon. Only, unbeknownst to them, it isn’t a balloon at all but a condom, a slightly embarrassing harbinger of modernity now necessitated by the recently instituted One Child Policy. With the oldest boy away at high school, Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) have three kids already and paying the fine on a fourth would more or less mean financial ruin. Thankfully, the condoms are free – the only problem being that Drolkar has to go to the clinic in town to ask for them which she finds extremely embarrassing, so much so that she can’t even bear to say the word, almost winking as she whispers “the free things” before quickly stuffing them in her pocket. 

What Drolkar wanted to ask the doctor about, however, was the possibility of sterilisation. With the kids constantly nicking the condoms along with the chance that they aren’t 100% reliable, she is in constant worry of what it might mean for the family if she becomes pregnant with a fourth child, especially, she tells the doctor, because Dargye seems to be in a particularly amorous mood at the moment which increases the chances of something going “wrong”. The female doctor can’t quite understand Drolkar’s prudery, or her slightly “old-fashioned” way of thinking. The doctor, obviously, enjoyed a university education. She has a career of her own and a clearly defined individual life as something other than a wife and mother. She wonders why anyone would want to have so many children in this day and age. Having only one means she can devote all of her resources in one direction, ensuring her child can have a good education and the best start in life, whereas Dargye has just had to sell a cow to pay for his eldest’s school fees while the second two stay home.

For Drolkar, who was perfectly happy with the way things were, the world is still an intensely patriarchal place and even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t, really), it’s probably too late to become anything other than a wife to her husband and mother to her sons. This her sister Ani (Yangshik Tso) learned to her cost. Venturing pick up her nephew Jamyang from school she ends up running into an old flame who apparently ruined her life though some kind of “misunderstanding” which led to her leaving home to become a nun. Now a divorced teacher and apparently rising literary star, he hands her a book inspired by their love affair which he hopes might help to explain whatever it was that happened between them, but Drolkar, still outraged on her sister’s behalf, prevents her from reading it – firstly by throwing it on the fire causing Ani to get her fingers burned (again, but literally) pulling it out, and then by telling Ani’s ex to take the book back and refrain from causing any more trouble dragging up the past.

Yet as much as she’s Dargye’s wife Drolkar tries to assert her authority in other ways aside from taking control of her sister’s romantic future. More practical than her husband, it’s she who is in charge of the condoms, and she who worries about the potential effects of a problematic pregnancy on their family. In a society as patriarchal as this, some might say that such things are in any case a woman’s responsibility, but Drolkar’s belief that bearing a child or not is her own decision eventually places her at odds with her husband who becomes temporarily violent when faced with his impotence, powerless to prevent his wife aborting their baby if that’s what she decides, but also at the mercy of the Chinese state who have arbitrarily decided that something as natural as conceiving a child is now a crime.

For Dargye and his family who live traditional lives far from the urban centres of the modern state, it isn’t only the pain and sadness of being forced to abort their child against their will which burdens them but a spiritual taboo in knowing that the child whose birth they’d be denying may be the reincarnated soul of a much loved relative. Drolkar is forced to choose between her Buddhist beliefs and the demands of Chinese communism, her husband’s wishes and those of the state acting as father. Of course she tries to choose her family, but whichever decision she makes may destroy it either through her husband’s resentment or the costs involved with trying to defy the political reality.

Grandad laments that everyone rides motorbikes these days, you never see horses anymore. Times have indeed changed, but in some ways more than others. While Dargye seems to draw vicarious power from the randy ram he’s borrowed from his friend to stud his sheep, a figure of robust and virile masculinity, he’s effectively neutered by the society in which he lives. Conversely, Drolkar, according to the doctor at least, ought to feel herself liberated but is left with no real choice at all. Only the kids, cheerfully playing with the instruments of their parents’ oppression, have learned to find innocent joy in the midst of such uncertainty while the modern world creeps in all around them.


Balloon was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Pema Tseden, 2018)

Jinpa poster 1Dreams, reality, and memory intertwine in Pema Tseden’s surrealist Tibetan western Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Zhuàng le Yī ZYáng). Cycles of revenge and regret, killings accidental and deliberate, lost love, and inescapable karma bind two men or two parts of one whole as two travellers meet each other on the road, part, and then are perhaps reunited if in a more spiritual sense than literal. Moving away from the realism of Tharlo into mystical abstraction, Pema Tseden’s sixth feature is as obtuse as it is beguiling.

The titular Jinpa is an ultra cool truck driver in black leather and sunshades whose main jam is, incongruously enough, a Tibetan cover of O Sole Mio. Out on the road one day and distracted by the swooping flight a nearby bird, he accidentally hits and kills a sheep. Remorseful, Jinpa bundles the poor creature’s body into his cab, only to have to shift it into the back when he gets another passenger – a young wanderer (Genden Phuntsok) who later abandons his silence to explain that his name is also “Jinpa” and he’s on a quest for revenge against the man who killed his father 20 years ago. A decade long search has led him to Sanak where he hopes to find the man he’s looking for.

The men part company at the next turning, but the older Jinpa can’t seem to forget about his strange encounter. He takes the sheep for a proper funeral (before stocking up on lamb from a street stall), and pays a visit to lover where he unable to perform to anyone’s satisfaction. Jinpa hits the road again to look for his hitcher, either eager to prevent a crime which may add to his own karma, or simply to discover the end to the mystery.

Jinpa’s accidental slaughter of a sheep and the younger man’s quite deliberate quest for blood become somehow linked. Tracking the other Jinpa he finds himself at a tavern with a flirtatious barmaid (Sonam Wangmo) who gives him a few more clues, most particularly a possible identification of the man the other Jinpa might have been looking for but her tale is a strange one. The tavern goers’ background conversation is identical to the present moment, implying this is either one very boring spotlight hogger or that events are somehow occupying the same temporal space.

Shifting into hazy black and white for his flashbacks, Pema Tseden hints at the malleability of memory – as if one figure could easy be swapped out for another, past and present uncomfortably overlapping with memory as the unstable glue at their centre. The younger Jinpa’s prospective target, we discover, also has a son. Would he grow up to seek revenge against the man who killed his father? One circle closes, but another envelopes it just as quickly. A man kills a sheep, by accident, but perhaps there’s more that he’s atoning for than simply inattentive driving.

“If I involve you, it becomes your dream too” the opening text tells us citing a Tibetan proverb. Could the older Jinpa simply be dreaming a version of himself, or are the two men somehow inhabiting the same dreamscape? Events repeat, the two men walk the same path at different times, diverging and reuniting as they make their way towards whichever realisation is lying in wait for them.

Played by real life poet and actor himself called “Jinpa”, the eponymous hero oozes cool in his edgy rockstar getup and ever present sunshades, embodying the stranger in town a little too consciously as he wanders in search of his younger self. Produced by Wong Kar-wai and adapting Tsering Norbu’s novel The Slayer, as well as the director’s I Ran Over a Sheep, Jinpa is an unabashed exercise in style and mood, swapping the washed out iciness of the road for the colourful warmth of taverns, stores, and temples while memory remains a blur of radiating black and white frustratingly difficult to see in its entirety. Jinpa’s circular travels mimic his life, caught between cycles of violence and regret but hoping for forgiveness and eventual release. Abstract and inscrutable, Jinpa’s mythic fable nevertheless retains its strange power as its hero(es) attempt to free themselves from an inescapable spiral of existential despair.


Jinpa screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 29.

Original trailer (no subtitles)