The Horse Thief (1986) 盜馬賊

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Running time: 88 minutes
Starring: Daiba, Dan Jiji, Drashi, Gaoba
Theme: Family/Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival
2001 San Francisco International Film Festival

Awards:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival – Distribution Help Award

The Horse Thief (1986) by acclaimed Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang touches on the travails of Chinese minorities in a follow-up to On the Hunting Ground (1984). The ethnic minorities are given a spotlight in this movie which captures the vast plains of inner China, and in particular their faith to the Buddhism doctrine and the numerous rites and rituals that they go through so as to shun evil spirits and to bring good luck to the community. The colors are vivid, and through Tian’s lenses the tough livelihood of these ethnic minorities living in rural villages come to life. There is minimal dialogue, save for a couple of terse exchanges that goes against common perceptions of a close-knit commuity as the villagers have to fend for themselves against the course of nature, but that mirrors the empty plains of the landscape. This makes the film relatively difficult to sit through at the start as Tian Zhuangzhuang strives to set the tone. But soon we learn to empathize with the villagers, and we feel their pain as they seek a spiritual connection with God to ease them through difficulttimes. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there really is no way for salvation except the heavens. The cinematography is plain stunning, and Tian’s exploration of a lesser-known indigineous minority has earned him rave plaudits in the form of Martin Scorsese, who declared the film as his #1 favourite from the 1990s on a talkshow with acclaimed critic Roger Ebert.

The protagonist is the titular horse thief, Norbu, in his struggle to bring his family up in Tibet. He steals horses for trade and bartering for food for his family, much to the chagrin of his fellow villagers who upon catching him, banish him from the clan and curse that God would not turn a blind eye on his misdeeds. In a sign that the heavens might possibly have listened, Norbu’s son eventually dies despite him not having renounced his faith. The devastated father strives to change his ways, engaging in rituals like turning prayer wheels, ceremonial dances and so forth in a series of voyeuristic scenes that capture the process of a human being seeking divine intervention in his faith.

The skies and the worshipped deities take centrestage in this film. The villagers give all their faith and belief in the Gods above, but one cannot help but question—and pity them along the way—at whether the skies are really listening. Tian films Norbu in his normadic existence, so starved that he has to eat newly-fallen snow, the character’s devastation at the loss of his son in laying the dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow (41:0641:15), the establishing shot accentuating his loneliness and emptiness now that he has lost his companion. He films the actual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb (no pun intended) that Norbu sneaks up upon and slits the throat of in an offering to the heavens. This grisly scene is as realistic as it is potentially morally offensive to some religions. The unsuspecting lamb tremors, and writes agonizingly as it struggles for its last breath.

This is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s third feature film and it is one of intoxicating beauty. The movie opens with lush colors and tribal instruments blaring in the background, thereby immediately drawing myself into the emptiness of the landscape through the use of depth of field and close-ups on bells (00:56), birds (00:59) and so forth. We get a lot of still sequences of otherwise emptiness, for instance, at 07:33-07:41, 07:4207:45, 07:4607:50 and 07:5007:56. There are close-ups of Buddha, of birds feasting on dead carcasses that create an impression of empty grandiose, and of rows and rows of villagers decked in monk attire and praying by the field. The crying wails in the middle of the movie symbolizes the birth of a  baby, preceding his capture on the camera. But memories run deep, and this child is no replacement for Norbu’s loss. The movie comes full circle, with the harsh reality forcing the family to desperate means, and the final shot is one equivalent to the opening sequence in a portrayal of karma, and that what goes around, perhaps comes around.

While Tian Zhuangzhuang would go on to make more controversial movies such as The Blue Kite (1993), I sense from the lenses of his camera a form of stoic realism at capturing the lives of the minority. There hardly appears to be any script, and the fluidity of the actions and landscape aid in conveying a striking reality in his documentation of the people

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