The Horse Thief (1986) Poster

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Chinese Cinema
LeSamourai16 May 2000
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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Stunning in its Elemental Power
Howard Schumann26 August 2002
Set in 1923 against the breathtaking Tibetan landscape, The Horse Thief describes the retribution visited upon a clan member who is stealing horses. With minimal plot or dialogue, it is essentially a meditation on the Tibetan's struggle for survival in a harsh and uncompromising environment. The film dramatizes both the everyday occurrences and the religious rituals that are part of the fabric of Tibetan life.

The simple tale involves Norbu (Rigzin Tseshang), a member of a clan, who is accused of stealing horses and temple goods to support his wife Dolma (Jiji Dan) and their adored young son Tashi (Jamco Jayang). To keep the clan cleansed of evil, Norbu and his family are ostracized and banished to assume the life of wanderers. Norbu and his family leave the clan but do not renounce their faith. Appealing for divine intervention to keep them alive, the family engages in Buddhist rituals such as turning the prayer wheels, masked ceremonial dances, and prostration to Buddha.

Ultimately, their nomadic existence takes a grim personal toll. At the point of starvation, Norbu has to eat the newly fallen snow to give him strength, and is forced to resume stealing to save his family from the cold winter. The conclusion is stunning in its elemental power.

Though I was deeply moved by Tian's despairing vision and awed by the film's gorgeous cinematography, I found The Horse Thief to be quite demanding to watch. The film moves very slowly with long, static shots during which the camera remains fixed for several minutes. Also, being unfamiliar with Tibetan culture, I sought more explanation of the significance of some rituals, for example, the grazing of sacred sheep and the dances using ceremonial masks. I feel, however, that The Horse Thief transcends specific cultural limitations and achieves a universal quality in its depiction of the importance of faith and the strength of family.

I would have liked to have seen The Horse Thief in the theater, and hear it spoken in the original Tibetan language (it was dubbed into Mandarin). Nonetheless, I am grateful for having received this authentic insight into Tibetan culture, something that is uncommon in these days of Chinese occupation. Watching this film was almost a furtive experience, like stealing a glimpse into a beautiful and haunting secret world and rediscovering what it means to be human.
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10/10
cautious attempt of contemporary criticism
zzmale21 November 2003
The theme behind this movie is the same as that of Ben Ming Nian (1990) directed by Mr. Fei Xie: criminals trying to go straight but are forced to go back to the old ways for survival due to lack of opportunities.

The theme reflected the problem of current society, and the problem started in the 1980's. As one of his early works and the political climates of China back then, it is understandable that the director adopted the cautious approach by using remote region such as Tibet and time setting that is more than half a century ago. One really needs to acknowledge the problem of current China (and in fact, the problem of many countries), in order to discover the link between the movie and its subtle attempt to criticize the contemporary society.
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A feast for Visual Lovers
trisha-25 December 2000
Big screen is the only place to see this masterpiece. As the last of the films viewed @ the Detroit Institute of Arts Detroit Film Theatre's Monday Night Series, Horse Thief was fitting to be viewed last: truly the best was saved till last.

A Detroit Free Press reviewer gave the film only 2 stars because of a "sorely needed script". The beauty of this film is exactly that lack of dialogue which leaves room to enjoy the visual feast that the director intended.

I am grateful that the film was allowed out of China at all and privileged to view the beauty of Tibetan culture and Buddhist monk rituals, the inside of a Tibetan temple with rows and rows of flickering candles, the tortured beauty of the mountainous region in summer, spring and winter and the painful, poignant and ultimately tragic tale of a man, his wife and children and their lives in a region of the world that some Americans might only see in the pages of National Geographic.
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7/10
Quiet ballad of an outcast, with accompaniment of prayer wheels
leoperu7 April 2013
I cannot help thinking that Tian Zhuangzhuang is not only the least appreciated of the great contemporary Chinese directors, but also the least talented - his films (that is, the three that I have seen) made a lesser impression on me than, let's say, the works of Jia Zhangke or the nineties' output of Zhang Yimou.

"Lan feng zheng" (The Blue Kite), a socio-critical portrait of life in Communist China, seems a bit too static in its quiet, sober realism, with the director's continuous effort to charge Maoism tending to veil everything else ; only in the last segment the movie became truly touching for me.

In "Xiao cheng zhi chun" (Springtime in a Small Town) a couple of characters are, zombie-like, dragging past ornamental decorations of dilapidating claustrophobic interiors, or alternately walking on ruins of an ancient city wall ; I found this hardly anything more than a rather boring, banal quasi-Chekhovian étude.

The last - in fact, the oldest - of the three, "Dao ma zei" (The Horse Thief), is quite different. Minimalistic in plot and dialogues, it might be described as a sort of ethnographic documentary with touches of folk ballad : lyrical cinema close to some works of the Armenian Parajanov, albeit, to my regret, lacking his emotional power. Tibetan nature is the vamp of the movie, local religion + magic its core. The former I do savour, the latter I struggle to grasp, owing to the fact that my knowledge of it is considerably limited.

The last reason why I don't praise "The Horse Thief" as Scorsese did, may lie in the quality of the Chinese region-free disc (gzbeauty). Nevertheless, the non-anamorphic image from an old print, dirty and scratched, is better than I expected. It can be zoomed to proper OAR 2,35:1 on my player, though there's no room for subtitles then. For second viewing, they are not necessary anyway.

For those who liked "The Horse Thief" but felt deprived of the epic/action element, I would recommend "Kekexili" (Mountain Patrol) by Tian's compatriot Lu Chuan.
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8/10
The vast panoramas of Tibet serve as backdrop for the exquisitely photographed The Horse Thief.
I B15 November 2010
Warning: Spoilers
A film about individual choices and morality, The Horse Thief centres on a Tibetan man named Norbu (Rigzin Tseshang) who supports his wife and young son by stealing horses and robbing Muslim travelers at knifepoint. Director Tian Zhuangzhuang tells this timeless story in fragmentary episodes punctuated by fades to black. At the time it was made, the film's sincere curiosity about Tibetan culture and rituals could be seen as questioning China's claim to Tibet, just as its dreamlike qualities amounted to a riposte to the preceding 37 years of didactic, Maoist propaganda film-making. The authorities insisted on adding an opening caption setting the film in 1923, decades before the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet. But the film's underlying thrust is censor-proof. By showing a man at once enslaved by his religion and flouting every tenent of its morality, it raises fundamental questions about belief systems - questions as relevant to political ideologies as to religious faiths. Seen by more people abroad than inside China (where it was effectively shelved), Tian's remarkable film is nonetheless one of the defining works of modern Chinese cinema. The film (his third as sole director) owes its existence to a short-lived policy of producing innovative films at the Xi'an Film Studio in western China, and it reflects the moment - ten years after the death of Mao - when Chinese society was beginning its convulsive transition from Stalinist communism to free-market capitalism with 'Chinese characteristics'.
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He stole more than horses
ibush7 December 2004
I'm not Martin Scorsese, I'm not a film student, I'm just a guy who likes movies. I saw this film tonight and found myself a little mystified over all the praise. I'm also not the Summer Blockbuster guy either so that's not my justification for not gushing about this film.

I will remember the primitiveness and brutality of life in Tibet. I will remember the colorful and confusing religious rituals. I'm sure they'd say the same thing about Catholicism. The landscape is beautiful, but that kind of sells itself. Why does the director take credit for that?

As stated on other reviews there are several scenes of sheep abuse which are less than politically correct. OK yeah, I get it, it's a different culture. Doesn't make it easier to watch.

Working with a group of non-actors is a major hurdle to overcome and I salute Tian for overcoming this.

I kept thinking it a bit odd that Norbu's wife had no idea what he did for a living. I also found it a bit odd that she had no recrimination for him after getting banished. Further more I'd have thought she'd really see red when their son dies, probably as a result of their standard of living after being banished. Perhaps this is a cultural difference. I understand the director is making a political statement in this film, but ultimately it seems fairly universal, not a product of Chinese society specifically.

To sum up the dubbing was awful, the sound quality in general was very poor, character development was fairly minimal and the one scene of violence (people on people) was not very convincing. I'm sure I would need to go to film school to find out why this film was called the best of the decade, but if you need that much education to appreciate something is it really worth it in the end?
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10/10
Lean Outleaned
smrana9377-831-37163021 December 2010
This is a movie about human beings living in the stark and pitiless land of Tibet. Tibetans have a clear if not too numerous a presence in North India and I always felt deeply curious about these strangers from a land not too distant yet strange and mysterious. My first memories of these people are of tattered nomads moving in groups. Today they are educated, vocal and have prospered economically on Indian soil.The present film is like a response to an inborn craving to visit this land.

It is set in 1923, thus steering clear of political controversies in China, of which Tibet is now a part. Tibet is the highest plateau in the world, with an average altitude of 16,000 feet. Going by this film, it also seems the most wind blown place. The mists are always floating swiftly away and the pennants planted near temples fluttering noisily like an array of weathercocks. I cannot remember any movie with such splendor of cinematography, not even David Lean at his best. It is a world of transcendent beauty. There is nothing of the picture postcard tailor's dummy prettiness. The azure mountains, snow deserts and water bodies live and breathe as though with the presence of stern deities. The musical score , comprising natural sounds, muffled incantations and a continuous drone punctuated with funereal beats of percussion unspoken script or reverent commentary on this extra terrestrial world.

Norbu is a poor member of a nomadic tribe. He has a wife and small boy to support. Though devout he is forced into stealing horses for survival. He is expelled from his group under sentence of amputation if he should return. The film follows his journey through different regions in the course of which he loses his son to disease and sires another one. Religion and ceremonies dominate the life of these simple minded and plainspoken folk. Probably they need this belief as a necessity in their lives with death and starvation constantly dangling over them. Norbu is a god fearing person and it is only to save his offspring from the jaws of starvation that he is driven to stealing. He contributes a good part of his "earnings" to the temple.

Both the mood and the score is reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Stalker. These snow blown mountains and deserts are also inhabited by a mysterious presence hinting at realities other than the familiar. The word mesmeric applied to this film is not a cliché but an accurate description of it's power.

At the end of the day, people are the same--in Tibet, Calcutta or in the US.
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7/10
Basic story competes with beautiful cinematography, Tibetan cultural immersion
maxastree5 December 2015
I found out about this film via Mark Cousin's well regarded "The Story of Film: an Odyssey", when he outlined some of the strongest features of the 80s.

The Horse Thief is a strikingly shot immersion into the unique, isolated and overwhelmingly spiritual culture of traditional Tibet, a country of snow laden plains and remote agrarian village life.

The nominal plot focuses on Norbu, a thief who is excommunicated from his tribe, to live in the harsh Tibetan hinterlands with this wife and child. Even his elders disdain him, and appear to show no sympathy for his crimes.

The tribe worships a local mountain deity for providence, but during an outbreak of disease many animals and family members suffer, some terminally. Norbu's family is allowed back into tribal society although his penalty is death, and there appears to be no alternative in the mid winter Tibetan snowfields.

The film's plot is almost overshadowed by the cinematography and focus on Tibetan civilization; their religious rites, celebrations, trading and working life all feature throughout. Parts of the "story" are presented as a dreamy montage of dancers, elemental images and Tibetan masks, with Buddhist themes of death and rebirth enacted by the cast, which is one of the exceptionally interesting things about the movie.

Its not really an epic film, and the actual scripted dialogue is pretty sparse, but worth seeing especially if you have a projector or similar large-screen display.
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9/10
A Film of Veritable Sacred Messages, which soon marred and got extolled on Tian's side
IMDBcinephile1 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I read a review on here saying that he was no Scorsese or film student and generally a cineaste. In other words, he thought that one could only enjoy the film if they analyse and explicate it as opposed to absorb it. I respect that he flouts it for a lack of entertainment, but generally speaking this film doesn't need a large overlook or analysis (though that can explain elements such as the sheep mask and the way in which they 'insert swords to pasture the sheep). What we must remember is that we're entering another world that is foreign to those in the western world.

The film warrants a high score anyway. Supposedly the year and period is set in 1923 as the prelude purports, but actually this was stipulated to be set in the time frame. Tian says that there's no necessity for a time period and that the film should be seen as a film without a period, as though it's pervasive. But taking this into consideration the film uses an old style; it's shot on celluloid, it's very visual compositions along with superimposition's and montages, which almost resemble the Rocky series, so the film is definitely a product of its time. But the truth still remains about the narrative within.

The main character (it says his name is Luobur on my DVD, but this site says his name is Norbu, but either way he's the focal character) has a son, Zhaxi, who in the beginning of the film has already died to due to illness and then gets devoured by birds, as a formation of religious men bat a ball as though it's a chime and his body gets taken up into the ether; this scene proved to be heavily controversial in China, but fascinating over here. Then we go into a descent of this landscape, where Norbu has to fend for himself and eventually cuts the strap of a horse to sell for his own needs. The film has a ponderous lapsing, such as when the tribal chief's father dies, and it's in this instance that the film absorbs us and shows us how the human condition affects the spectre as it sacredly goes in the sky... Norbu has to look after his other son and we see how he raises it by the little drips of water he picks up from the rain and how they bathe in the water to overcompensate for the fact they have no bath. Dolma (on my Chinese DVD, it says a different name wholly, but I'll disregard this) starts to fend for herself as the silhouetted world shows. Sometimes the film chronicles the incandescent lighting and ambient naturalistic light that creates an unknown dynamism in film.

One of my favourite parts is when he looks over the tribe as they chant. Now being unaccustomed to the Tibet traditions, I became increasingly interested in the way they looked at things, masquerading their faces with what either seems like sheep, calf or, appropriately, a horse. It's the emotional intensity that gets me with these moments that transpire. Tian tends to soar his score in for dramaturgical effect or better yet use the sounds of the people around to break it. For example, when Norbu comes to take a body into the water, he gets stoned along with the body and though he doesn't die, it leaves a rather perplexing effect. It can either be a negative energy or a positive energy.

There's actually only one graphic moment craning on a sheep getting slaughtered while the bereft Norbet lies out there in the cold shunned. It could be looked at as dispensable and graphic, but I look at it as a day in this individuals life. Tian, as has been said, was avant garde in making a documentary-esque film set to the backdrop of tumultuous times and beautifully lit mountains with lots of sacred iconography, which end up becoming too breathtaking with its superimposition's and the lost hope into the abyss of time.

The film is slow (a caveat and to reference the beginning of this review), but wholly overwhelming. It sometimes can inundate you with drama and melodrama that proves to be insignificant, such as when the chief's Father dies and so forth. But in the end, I felt like being in the eyes of a film maker in progress. It sometimes feels meditated at times as well. A cultural film that can be ignored (only by those not interested in film-making) or can be looked at as a textbook at the instigating film.

Tian said it was more about image then plot, character and story and though this may be a defect to the country he's in (In 1993, he made Blue Kite, which put him in exile for a decade, so... his images certainly were omnipotent anyway), it still sprawls over to a new culture like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji or Akira Kurosawa; it just demands that you have the temerity to speak it with such vision. A scary insight into an eerily harrowing landscape that I have never entered, but can look at through this well done film.
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10/10
Ritual and Destiny
Pierre Radulescu27 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
A Tibetan village living in its universe of traditions since ever. Harsh mountains, harsh storms and winds, flocks of vultures in the high among scarring clouds, or pretty close over herds. Villagers find their answers in rituals. Norbu is a horse thief, while a devout Buddhist. He robs from the shrine offerings, while giving most of his loot to the shrine. Banished from the community, he repents and seeks readmission. His first son dies, a second son is born, again he needs to steal horses.

Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief), made by Tian Zhuang-Zhuang in 1986, tells us a story of such an elemental power that words are almost unnecessary. Chinese censors insisted that the first image of the movie should indicate a year, 1923, meaning that the story was long time before Communist era. Actually the story is timeless.

It is, on my knowledge, only one other film director who spoke so forcefully about a universe of rituals and traditions: Parajanov. About the importance of the rituals, as a fundamental dimension of our system of values.

Like Parajanov, Tian has a profound respect for traditional cultures. Both of them, Parajanov and Tian, leave rituals freely in their movies. No explanation is needed, the ritual speaks for itself.

But it is more than that. Life is not only ritual. Life is destiny in the same time. You live within rituals, you live also within sin. This paradox of human condition, to live far from godhead, while within godhead. Norbu is a horse thief, a highwayman. He is also a devout Buddhist. Is here destiny? Or maybe is it that sin is also necessary in the divine order, together with rituals?
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7/10
landscape as character
Michael Neumann27 November 2010
This Chinese feature presents an impressive but challenging adventure for the more discriminating fans of Third World cinema, although the episodic, non-verbal style might seem to some even more remote than the high Tibetan plateaus where it was shot. There's a token storyline about a tribesman cast out from his clan for thievery, but the film is inclined more toward armchair anthropology, capturing the cryptic and obscure customs of the native Tibetans and the harsh conditions that shape their fate. Some of the cheap dubbing tends to blunt the film's impact, but at any rate the soundtrack is usually overwhelmed by the magnificent wide-screen photography, ushering the viewer into an isolated, alien world of soaring mountains and broad desert basins. This is a place where climate and terrain not only determine character, but are characters themselves: implacable, indifferent, and demanding.
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