“The Horse Thief” - Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986)

Tian Zhuangzhuang is one of the great Chinese filmmakers who were part of a cinematic renaissance known as the Fifth Generation film movement in China.  Why they all came together at that time in the 1980s is an artifact of history.  After the ravages of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Beijing Film Institute reopened its doors and began taking new students in 1978.  Three of the new students who had been waiting for this opportunity were Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who not long after they were graduated in 1982 came to be regarded together as the leaders of the Fifth Generation movement.

Although Tian Zhuangzhuang is not as internationally well-known as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, he nevertheless well deserves your attention, too.  Tian’s most famous film is The Blue Kite (Lán Fengzhen, 1993), but perhaps his greatest film is one of his earliest outings – The Horse Thief (Dào Ma Zéi, 1986).  This film has a powerful, almost mystical, ambiance that evokes in us the austere, spiritually-infused consciousness of Tibetan peasants living in the remote highlands.  These peasant livestock herders lived in such severe conditions that they felt their constantly imperiled existences could only persist by the grace of the mountain god to whom they endlessly prayed.  And the feeling of living this way is expertly conveyed to us in the film, not so much by the performances of the characters (all whom are played by nonprofessional actors and actresses), but by the expressionistic evocation of the entire “world” (as consciously perceived) in which these people live.  And this is what seems to have stood out for a number of film critics who have seen the film [1,2,3,4,5,6]. 

Indeed, The Horse Thief has even been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way it portrays to us an ultimately unfathomable and existentially threatening universe [7].  However, with respect to the protagonists in 2001, though, their hopes for survival (and hence their “faith”) were placed in scientific rationalism and technology; while for the protagonists in The Horse Thief, their faith was placed in the gods.  Anyway, perhaps it was something along these lines that inspired Martin Scorsese, who by the way seems to have seen thousands of films, to state that The Horse Thief was the best film he saw during the 1990s (he didn’t see the film upon its initial release in the 1980s) [8].  The Scorsese connection here is interesting to me, because I would say that the film that most closely reminds me of The Horse Thief is his own Taxi Driver (1976).  Both films effectively convey existential loneliness through the expressionistic presentation of an isolating and threatening world.

Note, however, that the atmosphere of loneliness in The Horse Thief is not conveyed via claustrophobic enclosure, as it might be in some films.  Quite the contrary, the wide open spaces of Tibet are presented in their breathtaking breadth via the superb wide-screen cinematography of Hou Yong and Zhao Fei.  And the humans shown here are mere insignificant and vulnerable little dots in this vast landscape.  The cinematography further enhances this impression of human vulnerability by having few medium shots and restricting itself mostly to long shots (many of which are of long duration) and closeups (many of which are shot from a low angle).

As the story of The Horse Thief unfolds, we see that the main character, Norbu, is going through something of a spiritual struggle.  He is devoutly religious, but at the same time he also looks after his loved ones by committing the sin of thievery.  The film withholds making any moral judgements about his behaviour, and the viewer may also have ambiguous feelings about him.  Instead of the film presenting polemical viewpoint, though, we see Norbu’s world from a more neutral external perspective, where alienation is constantly mediated by religious ritual and the wide dispersion of Tibetan prayer flags.  In fact since ritual is such a crucial and pervasive element to this narrative depiction, I will highlight the film’s extended and colourful presentations of religious ritual by the tag “RITUAL”.

The story of The Horse Thief, which was scripted by Zhang Rui, is presented in roughly five segments.  At the outset, the viewer is informed by a title that the film is set in 1923.  However, this initial titling was imposed on the filmmakers by the Chinese government in order to disconnect anything that happens in the story from the policies of the Chinese Community party.  Actually, what is shown could have taken place at any time over the previous hundred years or so.

1.  Norbu and Dolma
The film begins with Norbu (played by Rigzin Tseshang) and his colleague (whom I believe is called Nowre) sneaking up on some horses that have been tied up outside their owner’s tent and stealing them.   Later, Norbu is shown at home with his wife Doma (Jiji Dan) as they put their beloved two-year-old son Tashi to bed.  It is evident that Norbu and Dolma have a loving domestic household.  When Norbu subsequently goes out at night on another mission, Dolma is shown fervently praying alone to the gods for his safe return.

When a peddler comes to their small village, Norbu spends some of his little cash to purchase a ceremonial quiver that will be used to hold some sacred arrows to be offered to the Mountain God in order to secure his blessing.  This is followed by a (RITUAL) sequence showing the  Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies offering obeisance to the Mountain God, who is referred to as “Triratna” [9]. 

Later they are informed that their village head’s father has died and that dozens of lamas have been summoned to pray to Triratna for the man’s blessing so that he will be reincarnated to the Elysium.  Norbu, of course, must attend this ceremony, which is presented in detail (RITUAL).  Then Norbu and Dolma go to the temple to turn the prayer wheels in order to pray to Triratna to wash away their own bad karma (RITUAL). 

So by the end of this segment, the viewer has been able to see that Norbu is devoted to his wife, his son, and his religion.  But he is also a thief.

2.  An Unforgivable Crime
Next we see some monks on horseback on a mountain path and guiding some pack animals loaded with gifts for the temple.  Norbu and his companion come upon them and stage a violent robbery of their possessions.  But when Norbu and Nowre come to a safe location after awhile and divide up the spoils, they show that they intend to give most of the stolen loot to the temple and keep only a relatively small amount for themselves.  In fact Norbu ultimately decides to give all of his portion to the temple in order to pray for his son Tashi’s welfare.

When Norbu returns home, there are more loving family scenes showing them bathing in the river, which for them also serves as a religious ablution. 

However, news of their theft gets back to the village, and Norbu is accused of an unforgivable crime – stealing the headman’s gifts to the temple.  This is deemed an insult to the god Triratna, and Norbu is banished from the clan and ordered to leave living in the plains.  Norbu humbly accepts his punishment and vows that he will never steal again (RITUAL).  He and his family go up to the hills to live in a tent, next to which they setup their small monument of homage-signalling prayer arrows that express their obeisance to the god (RITUAL).

3.  Tashi is Ill
Tashi comes down with some illness, and this a very serious matter.  Although it may not be well known to many readers, only about half of all children ever born in primitive societies throughout history have managed to survive to adulthood [10].  Dolma prays for Tashi to Triratna, and Norbu goes to the temple to painstakingly collect “holy water” drippings from the temple water spout (RITUAL).  Then Norbu goes to the temple to engage in more praying for Tashi (RITUAL).

But Tashi dies in the winter.  The intensely grieving Norbu and Dolma perform extended ceremonial rites for Tashi’s soul, which is shown in a brilliant and extended sequence of meditative dissolves that take up about three minutes of screen time (RITUAL).  This is followed by about five minutes of lavish temple burial ceremonies (RITUAL).

4.  The Livestock Plague
In the spring, Dolma gives birth to another son, and the couple have another child for their loving concern.  However, a new problem arises.  The region is hit with a devastating livestock plague that causes massive deaths, and herders are shown shovelling heaps of goats into mass, hastily dug graves.  There is a new fatalistic ambience that sweeps over the people.  The herders’ only alternative is to shepherd their herds to a new region.  Desperate for some livelihood, Norbu looks for menial work in a temple.  He is ultimately hired to participate in a ritual procession by carrying a plaster statue of a demon over to a river where, upon his placing the statue in the water, it is ceremonially stoned by the religious populace hoping for relief from the plague (RITUAL).

5.  Desperation
Still desperate to find some way to support his new baby, Norbu goes back to his village and asks his traditionalist grandmother if she thinks he can be forgiven and return to the clan.  She tells him that Dolma and the child can return, but for him, absolution is not possible.  So as winter sets in, Norbu sells his horse and kills a lamb for some food to eat.  Seeing that a snowstorm is coming, he tells Dolma to take the child and rush back down from the hills to live in the village. 

But Dolma doesn’t want to leave her husband.  She, like so many of these peasants, is still hoping for some kind of salvation from the god Triratna.  Then they see a lightning bolt strike their homemade prayer-arrow monument, setting it ablaze. For these devout people, this fire undoubtedly signals to them that Triratna has rejected them.

With time running out, Norbu now realizes that he must break his vow and steal again in order to provide Dolma with a horse to ride to safety.  So Norbu, with Dolma’s help, goes out in the night, and they steal two horses.  With the angry stolen horse owners on their heels, Norbu hastily sends Dolma and the child off down the mountain, while he returns to fend off his pursuers.  But Norbu’s prospects for survival and salvation were dire indeed, as the closing shot indicates.


Although The Horse Thief may seem to have a relatively simple plot, the film has a gripping presence throughout.  This is due largely to the expertly crafted immersion of the viewer into Norbu’s spiritually-connected world, thanks in part to the cinematography by Hou Yong and Zhao Fei and the film editing by Jingzhong Li.  Also effective is the atmospheric and unobtrusive music of Qu Xiaosong, featuring native chanting along with haunting instrumental and vocal music.  And, of course, overseeing it all is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s masterful direction.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Janet Maslin, “Film: 'The Horse Thief'”, The New York Times, (6 January 1988).   
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "HORSE THIEF (Dao ma zei): A truly amazing film that takes a western audience to mystical places they have never seen before.", Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (1 May 2004).   
  3. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “The Horse Thief”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).    
  4. Martin Teller, “The Horse Thief”, Martin Teller's Movie Reviews,  (21 March 21 2013).   
  5. Kevin Jack Hagopian, “Horse Thief”, New York State Writers Institute, (n.d.).   
  6. Scarlet Cheng, “Daoma Zei - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).  
  7. Peter Reiher, "horse.thief", Laboratory for Advanced Systems Research, (27 August 2002).   
  8. Roger Ebert, “Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s”, Roger Ebert’s Journal, (27 February 2000).   
  9. “Tri Ratna”, I believe, refers to the  Three Jewels (or Three Treasures) of Buddhism – “the Buddha, The Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns, or more generally the community of Buddhist practitioners)”.  However ordinary Tibetan Buddhist practise, as shown in this film, was infused with other traditional religions, too, such as Bon.  Here in this film these three Tibetan Buddhist jewels seem to be embodied in the holy personage of the Mountain God.
       See:
  10. Max Roser, “Mortality in the past – around half died as children”, Our World in Data, (11 June 2019).       

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