Released in a limited ‘luxury’ edition by Diskino and the World Cinema Library with materials from Xi’an Studios, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s exemplary ethno-drama of religious life and rural hardship in Tibet has finally been given the treatment it deserves.
For a film so universally respected and even picked by Martin Scorsese as the best film made in the 1990s - it had a delayed release in the USA - this restoration has been a long time coming.
Writer Rui Zhang uses minimal dialogue to tell the story of the impoverished Norbu (Rigzin Tseshang), who is trying to support his wife and son by stealing horses and committing the Tibetan equivalent of “highway robbery’’. He is banished from his village and his clan.
Around this story, 5thGeneration Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang provides long, immersive documentary sequences of Buddhist rituals, omnipresent vultures, famine, dead livestock, ravishing landscapes, ceremonial dances and sky burials, all accompanied by a soundtrack of naturalist sounds, sparse music and chanting monks.
Filmed in Tibet, Gansu and Qinghai with a cast predominately made up of non-professionals, Tian’s widescreen landscapes are often overwhelmingly captivating, like something from another world. In Scorsese’s words: “genuinely transcendental”.
The mesmeric mastery of image and sound have led some to summon up descriptive labels like “pure cinema”, comparing The Horse Thief with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick,Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni and even Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes andDog Star Man. You could also throw in Bresson and his amateur actors and the trailblazing work of Robert Flaherty.
Such comparisons come from foreign eyes and The Horse Thief is also the work of foreign eyes - Chinese looking into Tibet. Discussing the reception of Tian’s films in China, Dru C. Gladney quotes Tony Rayns on the director’s ‘minority’ films believing they show: “the physical and spiritual lives of ‘national minorities’ in Inner Mongolia and Tibet, minus the usual mediating presence of the Han Chinese.”
Gladney takes this further and discusses ‘alterity’, the potentially enlightening encounter with ‘the other’ in Horse Thief: “Tian’s motive is not ethnographic; he does not want his Han viewers to understand, establish empathy, or reach any commonality with his foreign subjects. His purpose is that of alterity: by contrasting naturalized, ‘primitive’, and even ‘barbaric’ minority life with the [Chinese] viewer’s own domesticated, ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ existences, Tian calls into question the very basis of that contrast.”
Chinese film expert Chris Berry suggests The Horse Thief’s initial failure to attract a domestic audience is caused by this intrinsic alterity: “Rather than the titillation of otherness packaged for easy consumption, the result seems to have produced the effect of an encounter with radical alterity in which the audience felt excluded and at a loss.”
Norbu’s journey is born from a necessity to support his family while reconciling the morality of his thieving and the need to reaffirm his Buddhist faith. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth marks Norbu’s existence. He transgresses his clan, his culture and his religion and, with his family, is cast out into a fierce natural world, looking for redemption.
Tony Rayns again:“It offers the most awesomely plausible account of Tibetan life and culture ever seen in the west. It’s one of the few films whose images show you things you’ve never seen before.”
The Blu-ray boasts the inclusion of the Tibetan language track (thought lost) as well as the option of the original Mandarin. There are English subtitles for both languages.
And the extras on the Blu-ray are all Rayns. A three-minute introduction to a UK television screening from 1988 and a quite brilliant, recent 40-minute off-the-cuff discussion of Chinese cinema in the 1980s, the 5th Generation filmmakers and The Horse Thief.
It’s hard to believe a better Blu-ray release will come our way this year.