The Horse Thief



On the evidence of The Horse Thief (1986), his only movie to be released in the West, Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang is one of those filmmakers who has a gift for enhancing already captivating scenery — Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami and Michelangelo Antonioni come to mind as comparable — an artist who carefully frames his compositions for maximum effect. Anyone could point a camera at Tibet, the movie’s setting, and come up with a series of pretty pictures, but not everyone knows how to evoke the melancholy of distance, the terrible placidity of seasonal changes, the overwhelming strangeness of abundant nature. Visually, The Horse Thief is, to revive an overworked word, awesome.

Its story is slight and elliptically told. The activities of the title character, Norbu, lead to him and his wife and young son being banished by their clan. After a family tragedy, Norbu repents his evil ways and tries to rejoin the clan, but is told that only his wife and child may return. Norbu is left to fend for himself in the wilderness, always on the brink of starvation while being pursued by some of his more vengeful victims.

Norbu and his people are Buddhists of a particularly primitive sort (“the mountain god must be appeased”) and the film has long, hypnotic sequences of their various rituals. The people live in grinding poverty next to opulent temples, but rather than suggest some sort of social injustice, the juxtaposition emphasizes where their priorities lie. Prayer wheels are constantly spun, many sacrifices are made to the gods and things only get worse — which doesn’t matter as long as the people believe that a connection to something greater than themselves is being made and maintained. Some may scoff, but it’s also a feeling one can get from watching this remarkable film.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DFT, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at

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