A starkly hypnotic portrait of life in the Tibetan mountains, The Horse Thief (Dao ma zei) is the resplendent centrepiece in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s loose trilogy on the subject of ethnic minorities that began with On the Hunting Ground (1985) and belatedly concluded with his documentary Delamu (2004). An opening title card informs the audience that the narrative occurs in 1923, a clarification that was enforced by China’s Film Bureau to avoid political readings relating to contemporary societal issues, although Tian could have set the tale in almost any era since its rugged landscape is so alien that exact dates are almost rendered irrelevant.

The Horse Thief is an ethnographic drama that follows the trials and tribulations of a rural family with a studied emphasis on the strict rituals that constitute their very particular form of existence. This is not to say that Tian’s film is lacking in visual splendour as it is a true feast for the senses, rich with phantasmagoric scenery that transports the viewer into a place so ruggedly unknowable that it could be an alternative universe. Rather, its awe-inspiring compositions stem from its director’s quest to capture the natural beauty that is evident in everyday activity as opposed to epic conflict. Shot in the western Chinese provinces of Tibet, Gansu, and Qinghai with a cast of non-professional actors recruited from local communities in order to achieve authenticity, this is a powerful meditation on man’s most fundamental relationships: his reliance on the land for survival and his unwavering belief in the spiritual forces that will seek divine retribution should he stray from his faith.

The titular thief is Norbu (Tseshang Rigzin), whose devotion to Buddhism is offset by the criminality that he practices in order to feed his family. Under the cover of darkness, he sneaks into neighbouring areas and steals horses with the intention of selling them on as quickly as possible. Rumours of Norbu’s thievery are rife in his community, but his wife Dolma (Dan Jiji) and young son Tashi (Jayang Jamco) ignore such gossip, or at least pretend to, preferring to see Norbu as a hard-working patriarch. However, the clan’s elders can no longer ignore Norbu’s criminal deeds when they are officially reported, and his family is banished from the community. Forced to endure harsh conditions while living nomadically in a tent in a barren area, they pray to Buddha for help and guidance, only for Tashi to succumb to an illness that will take his innocent life. Norbu vows to change his ways when Dolma gives birth to another son and tries to make amends with the clan, but the ravages of famine are a constant reminder that he has only been able to take care of those he loves by resorting to stealing.

Tian filters ethnographic record through a linear minimalist narrative that allows for passages of documentary-style social exploration. There are numerous five-minute sequences which detail local rituals in an immersive manner which steadily lulls the viewer into seeing such customs from a Tibetan perspective, thereby countering the exoticising tendencies of the foreign gaze. One shows the clan praying to the mountain God, asking their deity to bless and protect them by showering the landscape with quivers purchased from Hui Muslim traders who are keen to profit from Tibetan beliefs. There are also several sky burials, a funeral service in which a corpse is left out in the open for vultures to pick off its flesh, eventually leaving only the skeleton. What could be interpreted by an outsider as an inhuman way to treat the remains of the recently deceased becomes a transcendent reverie: Tian illustrates how the community regards this ritual as one stage in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, with the ethereal nature of the ceremony enhanced by a soundtrack that blends the chants of the clan with a dreamlike synthesiser soundtrack. Buddhism is taken at face value throughout, with Norbu’s struggles seen as the direct consequence of his misjudgements rather than random misfortune.

Along with his fellow Fifth Generation figureheads Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Tian was fond of political allegory and used the landscapes of the past to address the problems of the present. The Horse Thief was produced at a time when China was transitioning from Stalinist communism to a Chinese version of free-market capitalism that severely marginalised members of society with shady pasts or bygone occupations. Norbu is constantly wrestling with his ingrained values because acting honourably does not help his family, and behaving dishonourably brings shame on his clan and soils his name, thereby limiting future opportunities. He ultimately accepts his outsider status by killing a sacred sheep to feed his wife and child during a heavy snowfall, paradoxically fulfilling his duties as provider while sealing his spiritual fate.

The mainland film market of 1986 was similarly cruel to Tian Zhuangzhuang. With the local censors disapproving of the director’s rhapsodic evocation of Tibet and distributor Xi’an Films anticipating a box office disaster as audiences developed a taste for broad entertainments, a mere ten prints of The Horse Thief were struck for a fleeting release. After this stern warning, Tian would undertake a run of impersonal commercial ventures, before being banned from directing for chronicling the tumultuous political movements of the 1950s and 1960s with The Blue Kite (1993). Although he received great acclaim upon his return from the wilderness with Springtime in a Small Town (2002) and The Go Master (2006), there has been little reassessment of The Horse Thief at a local level, with its mainland availability limited to websites which host low quality VHS transfers that deprive the film of much of its visual wonder.

Yet even in this less than pristine form, it is interesting to imagine China’s youthful internet users stumbling on The Horse Thief, as they would not only find its subject to be even more alien than the curious few who saw it in 1986, but might perhaps also be prompted to question why their national film industry now so rarely ventures into such uncharted territory.


The Horse Thief (Dao ma zei) (1986 People’s Republic of China 88 min)

Prod Co: Xi’an Film Studio Prod: Wu Tianming Dir: Tian Zhuangzhuang Scr: Zhang Rui Phot: Hou Yong, Zhao Fei Ed: Li Jingzhong Art Dir: Huo Jianqi Mus: Qu Xiaosong

Cast: Tseshang Rigzi, Dan Jiji, Jayang Jamco

NB: Names in this article follow the Chinese order, with family names first.

About The Author

John Berra is a lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is the co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (2014). He has contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (2014) and is the co-editor of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.

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