I first heard about Tian Zhuangzhuang's film The Horse Thief in a retrospective "Best of the '90s" episode of At the Movies where Martin Scorsese, filling the seat left vacant by Gene Siskel and then unclaimed by Richard Roeper, cited it as his favorite film of the decade, with the caveat that it actually came out in the '80s. His pick was justified due to receiving almost no exposure in the United States -- barring festivals and limited releases in the usual places (Chicago, L.A., New York) -- until the '90s, and I quickly found that it remained unavailable in the States, still unreleased on DVD unless you import a copy from China. As I waited to see if a company would distribute it, my impatience grew as I stumbled over raves here and there, most notably from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who listed it as the best film of 1987 and placed it on his list of the best films of the '80s. I finally found a way to see it -- far from my liking -- online, as a tiny, low-quality stream. But beggars can't be choosers, so I figured I'd try to make the best of it.
I can see right away why Scorsese was drawn to it. Scorsese of course is the master of cinematic Catholicism, charting the ways it manifests itself variously as guilt, anger, pride and a desire for redemption. Much of the same qualities define The Horse Thief, albeit filtered through Buddhism, not the Church. The protagonist indeed steals horses, but as a result of crippling social restraints, not greed. Norbu, a deeply religious man who observes all of the rituals and prayers of Buddhism, cannot justify stealing horses, but has no other choice if he wants to feed his family.
When word gets out about his "occupation," Norbu's tribe exiles him and his family into the harsh Tibetan wilderness, compounding the pressures placed upon Norbu to protect and provide for his family. Faced with cold and starvation, Norbu's young son dies. Stricken with grief, Norbu repents for his sins and vows never to steal again. Eventually he and his remaining family find their way back to their tribe, where they are welcomed back after hearing his promise to reform. When hunger and poverty threaten his other child, though, Norbu must return to a life of crime.
It's a simple plot, so basic that even at 88 minutes it might strike some as overlong, but the majesty of Tian's direction and his way of putting forth a political message with sparse dialogue makes for a masterclass in filmmaking. Characters only speak when they must interact with each other, and even then they remain brief and on-topic. Filling the space in the soundtrack are the thundering sounds of hooves riding the empty landscape as well as the constant drone of the music, a score that emphasizes the Buddhist connection to the film as much as Tian's frequent, detailed depictions of rituals.
Tian captures the beauty and harshness of Tibet in equal measure; in many ways, it acts as a variant upon the Old West. Of course, the sense of lawlessness combined with the vicious crackdowns of a government that neither knows nor cares about the living conditions of their subjects also recalls the darker side of the Western. The director uses close-ups intermittently, preferring instead to capture the full scale of the world around Norbu, the better to dwarf him physically to reflect his utter lack of status within society. Numerous shots focus on vultures, perhaps the only creatures to thrive in the unforgiving land, as they feast upon its victims. In the long, static takes I've come to expect from Asian films, Tian lingers on beautiful images until they become haunting and on unsettling images until they morph into something transcendent. One shot, of Norbu walking barefoot in deep snow to bury his son, struck the finest balance between the two, and I've yet to get that picture out of my head.
The detail and composition of Tian's shots are breathtaking. Asian cinema, barring the more Western technique of directors such as John Woo or Kurosawa Akira, tends to be radically different aesthetically from our own, yet I also find that their masterpieces often transcend cultural boundaries more readily than the finest examples of American cinema. The Horse Thief is no different: by simply featuring scenes in Tibet, Tian gives non-Chinese audiences something that they genuinely couldn't see otherwise, as the Chinese government bars outsiders from filming there, especially if it in anyway actually concerns Tibet. But the director uses the landscape to craft a story that can speak to all cultures. With documentary-like precision and realism, he takes us into a world of the past that is shockingly, tragically, so barely different from our present.
Before I watched the film, I spoke to someone about my desire to see it, mentioning Scorsese's praise of it and admitting near-total ignorance of the project. Nevertheless, my friend asked me what it was about so, feeling slightly annoyed, I sardonically replied, "It's like The Bicycle Thief, but with horses." Turns out, I wasn't too far off the mark. Where the protagonist of de Sica's film stole because the poverty of postwar Europe and the crimes inflicted upon him left him no other option, Norbu must steal because of the entire social framework of Tibet and China's subjugation of it. Not only is Tian examining the element of each society that turns to crime out of necessity but how China's imperialism, even post-Mao, affects a country. I can scarcely fathom the director's courage, which eventually cost him his career when Chinese censors buried his work for a decade and sent him into commercial exile. Even taken out of context, though, The Horse Thief is one of those marvels that erases the boundaries between cultural tastes and understanding, and it should be studied and beloved until the end of days for its aesthetic beauty and its uncompromising politics.