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HORSE THIEF (Dao ma zei)(director: Tian Zhuangzhuang; screenwriter: Zhang Rui; cinematographer: Zhao Fei/Yong Hou; editor: Jingzhong Li; music: Tian Zhuangzhuang; cast: Tian Zhuangzhuang; cast: Tseshang Rigzin (Norbu), Dan Jiji (Dolma, wife), Jamco Jayang (Tashi, son), Daiba (Granny), Drashi (Grandfather), Gaoba (Nowre); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Tian-Ming Wu; International Film Circuit; 1986-China-n Mandarin with English subtitles)
A truly amazing film that takes a western audience to mystical places they have never seen before.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brilliant Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang (“The Blue Kite”) is an important member of the “Fifth Generation” Beijing film movement to have emerged from the People’s Republic of China. In Horse Thief, he ventures to the rough terrain of rural Tibet to film an austere story about the prevailing hardships the native Tibetans have in living a truly Buddhist life. It’s a personal film, one that captures the everyday realities of the real Tibet and the harshness of life on the plains. This cruel existence is transposed against the background of the magnificent landscape and the rich traditions of Buddhist ceremonial life. The dialogue is sparse, as the story is told for the most part visually.

Norbu is a horse thief who has been expelled by his local clan and by necessity becomes a nomad living out of a tent, finding odd jobs wherever he can. He and his wife Dolma are devout Buddhists, raising their son Tashi in the same traditional way. When their son becomes very ill and dies, Norbu realizes his family can’t survive by being on their own or without reverting back to his criminal past–a way of life he gave up with the birth of his son and vowed to maintain as he turned the prayer wheel in his Buddhist practice. Norbu is at his saddest point of life when a tribe hires him to carry the death-totem in a ritual exorcism of a plague of anthrax. Instead of reverting to his old criminal ways, he returns with his wife and begs the clan to take him back.

A truly amazing film that takes a western audience to mystical places they have never seen before. It is an awesometelling of man’s connection with nature told from a Buddhist view of things. There is also great use of sound – as the mystical chanting of the monks echoes the raw beauty and terrors of the natural surroundings. It was filmed in Tibet, Gansu, and Qinghai. All the actors are nonprofessionals and recruited from among the locals. Tian has said that this is a film he made for the 21st century. It shows the difficulties of a Tibetan surviving on honest work without help from the gods or the community, that in essence belies a culture that forces those who are unskilled or banished from society to be criminals.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”