Friday, June 21, 2013

The Horse Thief (1986)

I saw The Horse Thief on DVD, two nights ago. “You should see The Horse Thief,” I told my friend, over coffee, one night later. She’ll have the chance: the film is screening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox this June 29th. And she’ll probably see it for free, because she works there.

But time is money. And so she wanted to know what made it so great—so worth her time—and that I found tricky to explain. For while it would be easy to make a case for the quality of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s direction, or a little tougher, but with research, still possible, to explain the film’s significance within the Chinese cinematic canon, for me these were not the reasons to see it. It was the film’s moodiness that set it apart. I wanted her to be unsettled by it, as I had been. As you would be, I think. 

The Horse Thief is set in the 1920s, in Tibet, in a remote peasant village nested in the mountains, where inhabitants live much as they always have. Religion is powerful here, and the basic rhythms of life: birth and death, seed and harvest, hot and cold—dictate existence.

Few, if any, of the tribespeople have visited a city. In this way, they resemble the men and women of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), but, at the heart of Yellow Earth was the tension between traditional ways of life and the outside world. In The Horse Thief, there is no mention of the outside world, and seemingly no thought of it—the people function within a universe so tightly packed that it seems almost machined.

Like something mechanical, even alien—that was how it felt. Zhuangzhuang wanted this space to have an eeriness; a presence, even through inanimate things. That was why he opened the film with a pack of vultures gorging on a kill, set to the sound of monks chanting—a visual symbolizing death; a sound symbolizing eternity. It is an omen. For the vultures it is an everyday act, but for the people, it means something. Everything means something, and so you must pay attention.

The horse thief, Norbu, does not pay attention. Though it’s better to say that he’s not superstitious—which is why he can commit the crime he does so casually. It is a serious thing to steal a man’s horses in a land where horses pull plows, carry riders, and if necessary, feed families. In addition to the punishments inflicted upon one who is caught, there is the risk that you will be cursed for what you have done. Though no one ever uses a word like “tabu,” it is clear enough that these people believe in such things. The maintaining of balance through ritual acts is a part of their daily lives. Norbua dips his son’s head in the water of a holy river, even as he seems to bathe in it for practical reasons. Norbu’s wife, a stoic woman, passes through a Buddhist shrine, turning each prayer wheel in a long row as she passes them, almost absent-mindedly. Faced with an outbreak of disease among their livestock, the desperate farmers fashion an effigy of death and float it into the river, then pelt it with stones. Norbu, meanwhile, helps himself to their offerings of coins.

If there is a god watching over Norbu, it is a cruel one—crueler than Norbu by far. Set against the misfortunes that befall the horse thief, Zhuangzhuang gives us the image of his family life, which is wholesome and loving. Norbu dotes on his son, makes tender love to his wife, and supports them both, at least for a while. His home is modest, but it is warm and humane.

Outside, there is the intricately detailed shrine: beautiful, but static and unbending. There are the prayer wheels: which rest unless someone takes time away from their own needs to turn them. There are the dead livestock, who will keep dying, and by their own deaths cause hundreds more, unless faceless forces are placated on their behalf. And there is the river those corpses float in: a drizzle across a flat, gray landscape, vital to the farmers’ survival but embodying a universe that seems indifferent to it. And so it goes.

About all this the characters say little. They just live it. And we, as viewers, drink in its weirdness, which is so arresting that, with a few tweaks, The Horse Thief could have made a convincing science fiction film. (Did I mention how much those chants reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey?) 

In a world like this, it is easy to fall short, particularly if you are your own man. Norbu is an individual. And for that, he must pay a price. We know Norbu enough to like him, and we know this world too little to like it, and so we think this is unfair. The gods would laugh at that. They know that, just as one season follows another, there will always be new people to replace the old. And Norbu’s wrongs will be righted, whether he likes it or not.

Where to see The Horse Thief:

The Horse Thief screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, July 29, 2013—part of the multi-film retrospective, A Century of Chinese Cinema.

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