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Horse Thief, The

Horse Thief, The (Dao ma zei)
Film Format: 
Zhuangzhuang, Tian
Rigzin Tseshang
Writer Rui Zhang
Cinematography by Yong Hou Fei Zhao
Film Reviews: 

Tian Zhuangzhuang's 1985 feature, set in the remote wilds of Tibet with a cast of local nonprofessionals, is a breathtaking spectacle in 'Scope and color, perhaps the most personal of all the “Fifth Generation” Beijing films to have emerged from the People's Republic of China (at least until Tian's subsequent The Blue Kite). Tian's originality and mastery of sound and image communicate directly, beyond the immediate trappings of the film's slender plot (a horse thief expelled from his clan) and regional culture (Buddhist death rituals), expressing an environmental and ecological mysticism that suggests a new relationship between man and nature. Tian had said that he made this for the 21st century, yet even today it's a film of the future. In Mandarin with subtitles. 88 min. By Jonathan Rosenbaum

for me, the best and most important
of all the “fifth generation” Chinese filmmakers who
entered the Beijing Film Academy after the end of the
Cultural Revolution and began to have access to a wide
range of films from abroad—said he’d made it for the 21st
century. The plot concerns an occasional horse thief who
is eventually expelled from his clan for stealing temple
offerings, and part of what Tian must have had in mind
is that because of its Tibetan subject and possibly its
style as well, the film hardly showed in mainland China
at all; only 11 prints were made (in contrast to the 200
to 300 prints made of most Chinese features at the
time), and even before it was released, it suffered two
kinds of censorship. One of these was an addition rather
than a subtraction––the date “1923,” which flashes on
the screen before the first image, thus locating the
action in a specific period rather than making it more
timeless, which was the director’s intention. The other
form was the elimination of corpses from the first of
three separate “sky burials” in the film, when human
bodies are fed to carrion birds. We do in fact see these
birds feeding on flesh–-they appear at the beginning of
the film, in the middle, and again at the end––but
evidently the original version was more explicit.

Date Arrival: 
9 December 2009