into Horse Thief was created by director, Tian
into an existing tradition of cinema. You have seen the same sort of thing before, even though the approach and many aspects of the film are novel. Once in a great while, more often for adventurous movie-goers than for those who see only Hollywood films, you come across something that is really new and different. Even less often, it is new, different, and good. Such a film is like a revelation. The first Kubrick movie one sees, or the first Tarkovsky, or the first Fellini, can be this sort of experience, a sudden broadening of one’s private definition of what film is. The cinematic experience of Horse Thief was created by director, Tian Zhuangzhuang, in order to explore the relationship between religion and humans in Tibetan society.
A fragmented narrative and minimal dialogue, the Horse Thief deals with the conflict between a Tibetan tribesman, Norbu, who steals horses for a living and his religion. Religion is the controlling force of life in Tibetan society and although Norbu is a thief, he is also a devout Buddhist. His relatively quiet life comes to an end one day when he steals a gift from the government to the monastery, a crime for which he and his family are ostracized and expelled from the tribe. Soon afterwards, Norbu’s son dies and his death is interpreted as punishment from God.
Although destitute, Norbu gives up his profession. He and his wife become nomads and their wanderings bring them to many major Tibetan festivals.The story is set in Tibet in the 1920’s, though it might as well be the 16th century, for all the effect that the modern age has on the area.
Despite Norbus disreputable occupation, he piously contributes the bulk of his spoils to the temple. From this simple situation, a very minimal plot propels the film. But horse thief is not a film to watch for plot.
Rather, the film presents a slow, careful revelation of the difficult lives of Tibetans, with emphasis on the vital role of religion in their lives.Practically every action taken by anyone in Horse Thief is directly related either to survival or religion. The land is harsh, and only constant effort permits people to live there. The characters only take time away from this struggle to worship their god. Gradually, as one watches the film, one realizes that the constant attention to worship is an intimate part of survival.
Life is so hard that only sacred intervention can save the characters from death. Every turn of the prayer wheel, every ceremonial dance, every sacrifice and devotion has the practical aim of supplicating for the divine intervention that alone can ensure survival. The greatest disasters of the film stem from unluckily angering the deity.
One of the most surprising things about this film from the People’s Republic of China is that the peasants’ attitudes about religion are taken completely at face value. Perhaps Buddha does not exist, and does not intervene in the daily lives of Tibetans, but Horse Thief offers no evidence that he doesn’t, and seems to suggest that he does. Even the unexpected theme of Horse Thief does not capture the importance of this film.
The photography and direction are the film’s most innovative aspects. Tian Zhuangzhuang, the director, has a unique visual style, favoring long, static shots. The typical presentation of long scenes in most movies is to break the scene into several shots, each taken from a different angle, at a different distance from the subject. Often, the only reason for breaking up the scene is visual interest. The director fears that we will be bored by a single, static shot covering several minutes, so he jazzes the scene up.
Taken to the extreme, this approach yields MTV-style films, in which no shot lingers more than a few seconds – editing as rock and roll. Only daring directors will let their camera be still, and then only on the most interesting subjects, as a calculated effect.Tian takes a vastly different approach.
He treats the camera as a distant viewer, almost godlike in its unblinking perspective. A shot will last for several minutes, with the action taking place far beyond the foreground. Camera movement is mostly used to quietly, slowly follow a moving subject, and cutting within a scene is rare. But Tian is not indulging in cinematic primitivism. For one thing, the photography is ravishingly beautiful, capturing the awesome splendor of Tibet and the rich colors of its culture.
More tellingly, several sequences show that Tian is intimately familiar with more complex uses of the camera. His sparing use of movement and editing allows him to extract tremendous impact from the same devices that other directors use routinely. A sudden, split-second cut registers surprise and shock as it never could in a typical film.
A montage of overlaid images beautifully suggests a blurring of the lines between the everyday and the mystical. A tracking shot following two characters as they walk in circles around a building meshes beautifully with an old woman’s use of a prayer wheel throughout the scene.Horse Thief is decidedly not a film for everyone. It moves slowly, the plot is simple, and the director demands effort from the viewer. Everything you need to know is shown, or told, but the viewer must pay attention to the film, for nothing will be repeated solely for clarity.
Tian cares less about explaining to the inattentive than he does about achieving his vision. Thus power of the film lies in Tian’s pictorial composition, especially that of the rugged Tibetan landscape, in the unusual and inspired camera angles and in the effective use of tracking shots and superimpositions. Through out the film, sound, light and color are applied with a rare force to create images of transcendent beauty that transforms the cinematic experience into a spiritual one. In one hypnotic shot after another, Tian’s documentary eye captures the solemnity and dignity of the Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies which are at once lyrical and surreal. These include the celestial burial in which human corpses are dismembered and laid out for the vultures to pick in the belief that when the birds fly skyward, the deceased will reach heaven more quickly; the worship of the mountain god; and the exorcism of the devil to rid the Tibetan countryside of a plague.
The film was not well-received by the Beijing authorities. Not only did the films, with their portrayal of strange customs, minimal plot and dialogue, alienate the Chinese officials, ordinary audiences and even some critics, but they also unmasked Beijing’s official propaganda of the country’s national minorities as rapidly prospering and modernizing. It took Horse Thief eight months to pass the censors before it was allowed limited release in China. By then, the two celestial burial sequences were trimmed, and the year 1923 was imposed at the start of the film, way before the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950. The arbitrary year was convenient in explaining both the absence of Han Chinese characters in the plot, and the primitivism and poverty of the region, contrary to Tian’s intention to make the film timeless.