Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Production: Xi'an Film Studio; Eastmancolour, Scope, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes. Filmed in Tibet. Distributed in the United States by China Film Import and Export.
Executive producer: Wu Tianming; screenplay: Zhang Rui; photography: Hou Yong, Zhao Fei; assistant director: Pan Peicheng; production manager: Li Changqing; editor: Li Jingzhong; art director: Huo Jianqi; lighting: Yao Zhuoxi; music: Qu Xiaosong.
Cast: Tseshang Rigzin (Norbu); Dan Jiji (Dolma); Jayang Jamco (Tashi); Gaoba (Nowre); Daiba (Granny); Drashi (Grandfather).
Berry, Chris, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, London, 1991.
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Combs, R., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1987.
Stanbrook, A., "Sky-burial," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1987.
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Buchet, J.-M., "Le voleur de chevaux," in Les Cine-Fiches de Grand Angle, May 1997.
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It is 1923, on the remote Tibetan plains. Two horsemen dressed in sheepskin gallop over a ridge on their way to rustle a coral of horses. Half drama and half reconstructed documentary on a life long past, Horse Thief is director Tian Zhuangzhuang's romantic peaen to China's Noble Savage.
Norbu is the Savage in question. With his long mass of tangled hair, his well-tanned and sinuous torso, and his dark flashing eyes, he rides a horse with as much dignity and naturalness as he strides the arid plains. He may steal horses and waylay Muslim travelers in the desert, but he is, nevertheless, a devoted husband to his wife, Dolma, and doting father to his young son, Tashi. In this film we become witness to the rites and passages of traditional Tibetan life—the ritualistic offerings to the gods; a funeral wake that ends with the corpse being laid out to be pecked apart by vultures; a visit by Norbu, his wife, and son to a temple to spin a row of vertical prayer wheels mounted on columns.
In one especially stunning scene, a crowd of men gather in the valley to worship the Mountain God. They set up an endless wailing as they push the sacred sheep ahead of them. They toss wads of votive paper into air. Caught by gusts of wind, the papers swirl forward, like giant snowflakes, blanketing the valley amidst a spooky chorus of voices. In another hypnotic scene Norbu and Dolma stand, pray, and prostrate themselves across the plain against a series of superimposed religious objects and temple architecture. The sound of bells, the drone of chanting, the rhythm of a single drum—all help transport us into the primeval world of legend.
Horse thievery is one thing—but desecration is another. One day Norbu and his outlaw partner come upon a sacred ground, where offerings have been left strewn about. They begin to pick through the jewelry and ornaments. "The big pile is for the temple, the small ones we'll split between us," says Norbu. Then something catches his eye. From a pile he picks out a golden medallion, which he exchanges for something of his own. Returning home, he gives it to his chortling boy: but here in the pristine, primeval world, everything is linked, and there is no crime without punishment. As the village elder says, "Norbu has offended God. He stole the official's temple gifts." He continues, "The officials demand a serious punishment, but no matter what, he's a member of my clan. According to our rules, he is to be driven out forever."
As Noble Savage, Norbu manfully accepts his fate and leaves at once. Exile, however, is not the worst punishment. His young son soon falls ill. Norbu brings back Holy Water from the temple to dab his son's forehead; he rocks the sick child in his arms, singing, "Go to sleep and I will give you a horse/There's a saddle ready for you, and I have a bridle, too/I will catch a star just for you. . . ."
But for all of Norbu's tenderness, the boy dies. Even the land itself is sick. As stock animals die off in droves, Norbu's tribe is forced to move west, and Norbu himself must steal again. In the end, he pays a desperate price for his transgressions.
Director Tian (b. 1952) entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, and yet he had to go elsewhere to make the two films on which his reputation is based—to the Inner Mongolia Film Studio for On the Hunting Ground (1985; a film about Mongolian horsemen) and to Xian Film Studio for Horse Thief. In Horse Thief, using only sparse dialogue, Tian has created a stunning poetry with visuals, editing, and sound that convey the very experience of living in an ancient tribal universe, a world of myth and immutable laws. Although the film was not well received in China, selling just seven prints, Tian himself dismissed the lack of audience. As he said in a controversial interview with Yang Ping for the magazine Popular Cinema: "I shot Horse Thief for audiences of the next century to watch."