Though there is a thriving industry now, back in 1986, there weren’t many films being made in Tibet based around Tibetan life and culture. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Horse Thief” was one of the rare films to venture far into the Tibetan plateaus and bring us a Buddhist story about an ethnic minority that was otherwise neglected by media and popular culture.

The Horse Thief” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival

In a remote Tibetan community lives Norbu and his family. Like the rest of the people in his very small village, Norbu and his wife are extremely religious Buddhists. Most of his time is spent praying, playing with his son, stealing horses and robbing travelling merchants. So religious are they that even when they steal from the merchants, a majority of the loot is offered to the temple and just a measly amount kept for themselves. Despite his religious ways, the bad karma caused by his thieving ways eventually catches up to him when, after one such loot, he pockets a necklace for himself from the pile of temple offerings, an act his clan deems theft. As a result, Norbu, his wife and sick son are banished from the village, leading them into a nomadic life. But karma is not quite done giving him his dues just yet.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film is fascinating for several reasons. Like his previous film “On the Hunting Ground”, which looked at the life of Mongolian hordes, “The Horse Thief” also takes a look at the life, beliefs and ethics of yet another minority tribe in the remote parts of China. In that sense, the film works like a vast and well-placed window, feeling almost like a documentary for the most part, taking a look at the inner workings of Buddhist Tibetan tribes. The religious practices and processions, some which take up a significant amount of the film’s runtime, are depicted in great detail. 

Though the film is minimalistic with its dialogues, it is not to say that it doesn’t have an engaging storyline. The film is fascinated with Death, which also plays a big part in Buddhism. Death follows Norbu and his family right until the final scene, having been brought upon himself by his lawless life. The scene in the latter part of the film where Norbu gets a job to carry a death totem into the river to rid a village of the epidemic that’s killing their sheep only goes to hone in the fact, literally making Norbu the carrier of death itself. Such not-so-subtle symbolism populates the film. As such, it is also quite fixated on the concept of Karma. In spite of being extremely religious and God-fearing, to the point that he even puts his own money into the Temple’s pile of goods as replacement when he swipes the necklace, Norbu’s life as a horse thief brings on a lifelong onslaught of grief and hardship. As Norbu finds out much later, it does not even escape Nowre, his clansman and fellow thief who robbed the merchants alongside him.

One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is the cinematography by Zhao Fei and Hou Yong, which is, without hyperbole, absolutely breathtaking at places, capturing the vast open Tibetan plateaus in all seasons with as beauty as it does the thousand lamps burning inside the temple and the various other Buddhist practises and rituals. Of particular note is the “death dance” involving children dressed in skull masks and adults in animal masks. Though it goes on for a while, it leaves the audience as spellbound as the onlooking Norbu and his wife. Coupled with Buddhist chants and traditional Tibetan instrumental music, which is overseen by Qu Xiaosong, the cinematography creates quite a powerful effect on the audience. The camera also likes Rigzin Tseshang, who plays Norbu. Since he is not a professional actor and doesn’t have much dialogues to narrate, his performance may lack in places, but there is no denying that his weathered face does half the job of telling Norbu’s story for him.

Finally, one must also mention a couple scenes involving sheep that, if the film were to be made today, would never pass strict animal rights guidances and would cause quite the furore. Because of their rawness and the camera’s insistence to capture it all without cutting away, they prove quite powerful images that linger long in the mind of the viewer.

“The Horse Thief” is certainly not a film for everyone. While some viewers might find its almost documentary-like depiction off-putting, those willing to give it some time will be benefitted with a rich account of Tibetan Buddhist life and stunning Himalayan locales. The film begins with a 1923 timestamp, which was famously imposed upon Tian Zhuangzhuang by the censors, who rather wanted the story to be timeless. Indeed, he ended up creating a film that is as timeless as his story could have been.