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The story of Norbu, a horse thief, who is thrown out of his tribe in an effort to purge it of evil. Norbu repents after the birth of his son, but he is forced to steal again after the birth of a second son. Written by
International Film Circuit <email@example.com>
After hearing Martin Scorsese declare Horse Thief as the #1 film of the 90s (actually released in 1987) when co-hosting the annual "Best of" show with Roger Ebert, I set out to see this film. Luckily, there was a copy available in the library. Unfortunately, the library would not allow me to take it home. So, I was stuck watching this film on a 10 inch screen television in a cramped cubicle with uncomfortable headphones crushing my ears. Obviously, this was not the way that Tian intended his film to be viewed.
Tian Zhuangzhuang's third feature, Horse Thief, is essentially dialogue-free and is rather slim on plot. The film is reminiscent of the silent-era when directors were capable of manipulating the camera to communicate their desired idea. Basically, the film centers on the banishment of Norbu (forcefully personified by Rigzin Tseshang in an astonishing debut), a local horse thief, and his wife and son. Norbu gives up stealing horses for his wife and sets out to find a more respectable profession. When times get rough, Norbu is confronted with the reality that he must steal again to save his family from the harsh, unforgiving winter.
Tian's film has a striking realistic quality to it that plays like a documentary. In one scene, we are given the chance to watch a ritualistic ceremony designed to please the mountain god. While this scene evokes awe, some scenes may be seen as quite offensive. For example, Norbu comes up behind an unsuspecting lamb and slits its throat. The viewer is forced to watch the animal writhe and thrash agonizingly struggling for its last breaths. This scene, although I cannot deny its accuracy and technical beauty, is distressing to watch. The reality of this scene is not achieved through use of mechanical animals and fake blood; it is achieved by the actual killing of a lamb for the production of this film. Aside from this painfully unpleasant section, Tian's cinematic mastery is thoroughly evident.
Because of the deficient viewing conditions, I was only able to catch a glimpse of Tian's overwhelmingly glorious cinematography: Norbu dolefully places his son's dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow for the gods to take. In deep focus, the camera slowly reveals Norbu's utter aloneness and emptiness. In this one shot, Tian has created cinematic perfection.
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