TIFF Cinematheque

The Horse Thief

Tian Zhuangzhuang

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One of the greatest achievements of Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, Tian Zhuangzhuang's ravishingly beautiful epic set in the vastness of rural Tibet was famously praised by Martin Scorsese as the best film he saw in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most amazing work of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (a group that also included Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief was chosen by Martin Scorsese as the best film of the 1990s, on the occasion of its belated release in North America. ("[It's] a real inspiration to me. It's that rare thing: a genuinely transcendental film.") Radical in both aesthetics and subject — it focuses on a non-Han minority in a contested region (Tibet) — the film is ostensibly set in 1923 (as specified via an enforced, post-hoc title card), but its tale is timeless. Opening with a sky burial — the corpses remain unseen because of state censorship, but the feasting vultures will frequently reappear as portents — Tian's anthropological saga chronicles the banishment of Norbu, a horse thief expelled by his clan after stealing a trinket from their temple's offerings. Seeking reintegration, he, his wife, and their young son undertake rituals of atonement on the road to exile, seeking Buddha's blessings as they rotate banks of prayer wheels, repeatedly prostrate themselves, and attempt (unsuccessfully) to fend off death in religious rites.

The story is stark, the landscape lunar and the dialogue minimal, but Thief is more sumptuous than ascetic, its glorious CinemaScope compositions keyed to carmine: the saffron robes of serried monks, the crimson gold of temple interiors ablaze with banks of candles, the firelit scarlet of Norbu's hut, the red glow of a bonfire around which elaborately masked ritualists madly dance.

The visual pageantry — rendered in a showy array of tracks, pans, dissolves, superimpositions, and one crane shot — is matched by a soundtrack of growling basso chants and eerie modernist choruses, the whir of prayer wheels, peals of tubular bells, the thrum of hand drums, and the rumble of Buddhist dungchen. In this recently struck 35mm print, The Horse Thief should prove resplendent.

JAMES QUANDT

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