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
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THE HORSE THIEF is the living proof of Tian's humanistic aptitude and profound veneration to the ethnic heritage
Among Chinese "Fifth Generation" film directors, the name Tian Zhuangzhuang might not sound as resounding as his classmates Zhang Yimou or Chen Keige, both internationally and domestically, principally because his two most famous works THE HORSE THIEF (1986) and THE BLUE KITE (1993) are both under heavy censorship for pluckily tackling the hot buttons, the Tibetan ethnic minorities and the adverse affect of the Culture Revolution, respectively. Tian's directorial endeavor has reached a standstill since 2009, after the flop THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (2009). With 11 features and 1 documentary under his bet, he, has since reinvented himself as an actor, giving consecutive affecting performances in two films made by female directors, Sylvia Chang's LOVE EDUCATION (2017) and her protégée Rene Liu's directorial debut US AND THEM (2018), awarded with coveted GOLDEN HORSE Awards nominations.
Made between Chen's groundbreaking YELLOW EARTH (1984) and Zhang's spectacular RED SORGHUM (1988), THE HORSE THIEF, already Tian's third feature, reverently lifts the veil of the myth around Tibet and deploys a cinéma-vérité guideline in peering through the mores of its denizens - mostly through their religious rituals (profuse with prayer wheels, floating prayers, as well as clinquant temples) and quotidian activities (a haunting living sheep burying sequence and the displacement caused by a plague) - and relishes in the sublime, pristine natural and architectural landscape, the seasonal changes in the Qingzang Plateau, the Roof of the World, from verdant green to an overwhelming snow white.
Opening and closing with authentic scenes of celestial burials, which signifies an ouroboric Buddhist transcendence, the film's elliptical narrative loosely hinges on the titular thief Norbu (Tseshang), whose contravention takes its toll when he and his nuclear family is punished into exile in 1923, bereavement and poverty will assail him and wife Dolma (Dan), even the blessing of pregnancy doesn't augur well for a family at the end of their tether (underpinned by a chthonic, eery traditional performance of masked deities watched by the couple). Yet, through his minimalist plot, Tian astutely points up the perpetuating conflict in Norbu's illicit métier and his indefatigable piety, who habitually allots a tranche of his haul to the Almighty in order to alleviate his sins, especially when the seeming reckoning is subjected to his young son, Tian masterfully conjures up a series of blue-tinted superimposed sequences manifesting the kowtowing couple's repentance, foreseeing the guilty-driven Norbu's ultimate fate.
Besides Hou Yong and Zhao Fei's mind-blowing photography, Qu Xiaosong's cavernous, otherworldly score is equally substantive in honing up the film's superlative aura of exotica and mystique, only the dubbed Tibetan dialogue sounds a tad dissonant, loud and out of synchronicity, although it is a small triumph since the original mainland theatrical release is histrionically dubbed in Mandarin at the behest of the harsh censorship. More of an ethnic reportage than a compelling exposé, THE HORSE THIEF is the living proof of Tian's humanistic aptitude and profound veneration to the ethnic heritage, not to mention he is also bestowed with a keen eye and a competent hand in finding divine beauty, whose oeuvre is in much exigency of rediscovery.
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