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An early contender for 2018’s most earnest film hits Beijing cinemas in the first month of the year. Maverick director Zhang Wei is better known for his serious, thorny films dealing with the marginalised people of Chinese society. In Ballad From Tibet, the protagonists are certainly underprivileged – blind peasant children aren’t always bound for riches – but they are presented with a lightness and perhaps simplicity that falls short of Zhang’s typical narrative courage.
Ballad tells the story of three blind Tibetan children who hear of a reality television talent contest taking place in Shenzhen and – led by their almost-blind friend and laoban Thupten – decide to hitch their way over and try their luck. Cue adventure, conflict and beautiful scenes of rolling Tibetan hills as the gang of four finds its way to Lhasa.
To Zhang’s credit, he doesn’t sentimentalise the life of the blind. Although he says he was inspired by the 'innocence and bravery' of a group of real life blind Tibetan students who appeared on a national television reality show in 2010, the film isn’t afraid to find humour in the task of navigating a visual world without sight. The children recognise their blind teacher, who has traveled to Lhasa to track them down, by the sound of his guide stick clicking on the cobbled streets. The ensuing chase scene has some elements of a traditional farce about it, with police, teacher, students and television producers all dashing around each other.
It’s not by chance that the film focuses on Tibet. As well as the true story from 2010, there’s the fact that Tibet has the highest rate of cataracts in China, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery. This combination is a bittersweet one, made worse by local beliefs that the blind have been punished from heaven, leading to societal discrimination. But when the eager Shenzhen TV producer tries to take pity on the children, the teacher chides him by saying 'sometimes sympathy is worse than prejudice'.
Such epithets are common in Zhang’s work. He’s elsewhere tackled the plight of autistic children, transgender teens and factory workers, and is prone to pessimistic diagnoses. But the teacher’s line is a rare moment of contemplation in Ballad, which otherwise presents a digestible (and censor-friendly) image of Tibet and its place in Chinese culture. What it lacks in political or emotional depth, however, it makes up in breathtaking shots of rolling countryside and life in Lhasa, much of which visitors to China will never have the chance to see with their own eyes.