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The Horse Thief

Posted by martinteller on March 21, 2013

In the remote, desolate wild of Tibet, Norbu (Tseshang Rigzin) resorts to thievery to provide for his wife Dolma (Dan Jiji) and their small son.  He keeps his crimes a secret from his family, and remains devout in his Buddhism.  But when his clan discovers his misdeeds, he’s exiled.  Now roaming with his family alone in the harsh conditions, tragedy befalls them.  They pray to Buddha and struggle to survive.

Tian Zhuangzhuang is not as well-known in these parts as his fellow “Fifth Generation” directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.  All I’ve seen from him is his overcooked, inferior remake of Spring in a Small Town.  But I know The Blue Kite is generally well-regarded.  Moreover, Martin Scorsese named The Horse Thief as his favorite film of the 90’s.

While I wouldn’t go that far (for one thing, it’s only from the 90’s in terms of its US release date), it’s a lot better than the other Tian I’ve seen.  We know the setting is 1923 by an opening title card (enforced by authorities to avoid political implications) but it might as well be 400 years ago.  Modernity has not touched these people.  It’s a brutal existence, subject to the whims of the weather and the harvest… or an angry god.  The Buddhist religion plays a huge role in the film, and Tian — like Paradjanov in Shadows of Our Ancestors — revels in the cultural details.  The garb, the rituals, the chants, the tools of their prayer.  Tian doesn’t tell you what to feel about their beliefs, whether Norbu’s suffering is the result of divine retribution or just the perils of living on the far, far margins of society.

The actors are non-professional (and noticeably dubbed) but all perform their roles well.  But the real star is probably the wonderful photography.  The landscapes are impressive indeed in this widescreen scope, stretching far out to the horizon, a million miles from anywhere.  Almost every shot is visually compelling, some of them quite awe-inspiring.  Tian makes excellent use of montage and superimpositions during some of the more religious sequences, creating a quiet frenzy of intensity.  The haunting score by Qu Xiao-Song, combined with the Buddhist chants and the howl of the ever-present wind, forms an enveloping soundscape as well.

The movie is episodic and thin on plot, and the long, slow takes with little action will be a deterrent for many viewers.  But it is a fine, sometimes meditative piece of filmmaking, interesting both as melodrama and ethnography.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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