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Horse Thief

(Chinese, 1986, 88 minutes, color, 35mm)
(In Chinese with English subtitles)

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Daiba. . . . . . . . . . Granny
Jiji Dan . . . . . . . . . . Dolma, wife
Drashi . . . . . . . . . . Grandfather
Daoba . . . . . . . . . . Nowre
Jamco Jayang . . . . . . . . . . Tashi, son
Rigzin Tseshang . . . . . . . . . .Norbu

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

In the raw landscape of Tibet, a deeply religious man gallops headlong toward a deadly conflict between his responsibilities to his tribe and to his family. This painfully beautiful film is the tale of Norbu, a Tibetan bandit. Theft is his livelihood, but it is also his life: he shares his takings with his temple, and his tribe. The tribe, however, becomes profoundly angry with him for the impact his thieving has on the life of the community, and disciplines him in the sternest terms it can offer. When his family is shattered by death, Norbu swears off horse stealing and robbery, in a ritualized expression of grief and repentance. But poverty instantly looms. Norbu cannot seem to grub a living out of the hard rock of Tibet, and he must decide whether to return to the one thing he is really good at, the one occupation that holds promise of making him any money at all in what amounts to a feral economy. Going straight means starvation and want for his family, but stealing means giving the lie to a sacred promise. What is to be done? For a man whose life has been a cycle of acquisition and sacrifice of worldly goods, there remains one last sacrifice to be contemplated.

Tian Zhuangzhuang had dreamed of making this film for many years. The son of respected film actors, he had been a leader among rebellious fellow students at the state film school. Suspicious of any film made about Tibet, state authorities had banished him from Beijing to lesser, provincial studios. But their plan backfired; deep in the countryside, far from central censorship boards, Tian did brave and path-breaking work, making exactly the sort of films the state dreaded. His 1985 film THE HUNTING GROUND was set in Inner Mongolia, and, at the remarkable Xi’an studios, he found creative coworkers eager to help him bring Tibetan life to Chinese screens. As his dream finally came to fruition, Chinese censors and film industry authorities remained suspicious of any film, which dealt with Tibet, especially one whose richly ambiguous style mocked the pedantic socialist realism favored by the government. Less than ten prints of THE HORSE THIEF were circulated in China; potboiler melodramas and assembly-line martial arts films often shipped upwards of 200 prints. Tian had intended his story to be a timeless one, its parable of conflict between the family and the ideological community perhaps a lesson for modern China. But the government insisted on the addition of the claim that the film takes place in the 1920s, long before the Chinese revolution the annexation of Tibet. (Superimposed titles to this effect are shown as a preface to the film.) The implication is that the harsh pattern of poverty, crime, banishment the film depicts couldn’t happen under Tibet’s benevolent Chinese "protectors." No amount of tinkering, however, could stifle THE HORSE THIEF’s remarkable power to illuminate the hidden inner world of Tibet to Chinese citizens. Perhaps this was why, eventually, the film was banned in China. Shot on location in Tibet, Gansu, and Qinghai, with most parts played by local inhabitants, THE HORSE THIEF was a landmark in the transformation of Chinese cinema into an aesthetically thrilling, emotionally passionate cinema by the "Fifth Generation" of directors, writers, and cinematographers. Tian’s cryptic tale of social struggle and reconciliation in Tibet was a herald of such later Fifth Generation masterpieces as YELLOW EARTH, RAISE THE RED LANTERN, and FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE.

A pictorialist, Tian’s tale is sculpted as sparingly as the chill Tibetan tundra. Like Terence Malick or Andrei Tarkovsky, Tian chooses pictures over speech as his prime medium of narration. And like Andrei Paradjanov and Werner Herzog, his outsider’s observation of an exotic culture never loses its deliberate, off-putting sense of "foreignness," reminding us always how little we can ever know about this distant, desolate land. In the wide palette of Cinemascope, Tian’s iconography is especially unforgettable: documentary footage of the solemn Buddhist rite of the prayer wheel, the nearly experimental sequence of the thief circling the temple, the oddly placid reality of vultures idly tearing at a corpse on a burial scaffold against a frozen sky. Tian’s stoic Tibetans are destitute, scraping subsistence out of a cold and cruel land, awaiting death with a certain eagerness at the transfiguration into long-denied peace and contentment which their religion promises. The Tibetans’ ability to look beyond their pale, wretched lives to a vision of a new consciousness is at the heart of the film’s narrative dilemma, for the thief must weigh the needs of the desperate present against the demands of the misty world beyond. Death is ever-present for him, but so is the everlasting life the presence of his temple asserts so vividly.

Few other films about crime, among them THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONAL, and THE WILD BUNCH, have explored the nexus between the loyalty of a small band and larger social duty as thoughtfully as THE HORSE THIEF. The meaning of a particular society can often be found in the arbitrary boundary lines it draws between the legitimate and the illegitimate, the licit and the illicit, and the permeability of that boundary. In THE HORSE THIEF, that boundary is a wall dividing Norbu’s soul.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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