Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang
On a frigid Tibetan mountaintop, a flock a vultures descend upon a freshly deceased corpse. With heads stooping below their wings, they snatch and chew the rotting flesh with razor beaks. Some extend their wings and bicker with their neighbors. Soon, all that will remain is a clean-picked skeleton. To outsiders, the vultures are filthy scavengers desecrating a grave. To the local Tibetans, they are part of a solemn ritual called a “sky burial.” The vultures are not seen as filthy creatures, but spiritual beings called Dakinis (sky dancer). By eating the flesh of the recently deceased, they spirit the newly departed soul up to heaven where it awaits reincarnation into their next lives. It is a gruesome spectacle, but one tinged by respect and holy reverence. For the sky burial represents more than just death, it signifies the first step towards rebirth.
So one might ask why such a scene is the first thing we watch in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief. The easy answer would be to say that it represents the nature of living in the Tibetan mountains: stark and strangely beautiful. It is a land where the brutal tasks of everyday life reflect themselves in the calloused faces and bodies of its inhabitants. It is a land where the sound of grazing cattle mixes with Buddhist chants and mantras. Truly, to live in the Tibetan mountains is to live in another world, far away, and yet so similar to our own. For while we can’t identify with the Tibetan lifestyle of raising cattle, squeezing stubborn crops out of the ground, and following strict Buddhist doctrine, we can relate to the heart of this world: family and community.
For the love of one’s family and community lie at the heart of this masterful film. It juxtaposes the sweeping vistas and Tibet with intimate details of family life. One family, in particular, is focused upon in The Horse Thief. That family is led by Norbu, a devout Buddhist, a devoted family man, and a horse thief. Late at night, he creeps into neighboring areas and steals their horses. The profit he gains from his crimes are used to provide food and shelter for his beautiful wife, Dolma, and their incessantly cheerful young son, Tashi. When he returns to his home and greets his family, one wonders if they are aware of his activities and how he keeps providing income in the midst of a famine. But if they wonder, they don’t care. They are too important to each other. Much more than their meager abode, they provide comfort and shelter from the ravages of the outside world.
But times are proving to be especially difficult this year. It is 1927, year of revolution in China when millions of peasants rebelled against their landlords. China is just on the cusp of occupying Tibet, which is undergoing an intense famine. Life has become so difficult for Norbu that he ends up stealing from the local Buddhist temple. As a result, his family is banished from their clan. Hardship leads to hardship. There is no food. Soon, Tashi dies. In the midst of their terrible grief, Dolma gives birth to another son. Determined that this son will survive, he tries to reform himself. However, he is accused of stealing horses again and is thrown out of the community for a second time.
It is a rough, devastating story. Simply told, yet elegantly expressed, the majority of the plot is told through the visuals with little to no dialogue. Primarily, the film seems concerned with three things: life within Norbu’s family, Buddhist ceremonies and rites, and the vast countryside. Zhuangzhuang alternates between these three subjects with the hypnotic grace of Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. In fact, in many cases the narrative seems to take a backseat to the visuals which evoke a lifestyle in and of itself. Zhuangzhuang seems more concerned with painting a portrait of Tibetan life with Norbu’s family as a focal point that the audience can relate to.
That isn’t to say that the film is dull or sterile. The Horse Thief’s greatest accomplishment is its ability to affect its audience and create sympathy for Norbu and awe for his home. It is a genuine work of humanism.
But what the audience must also feel in viewing this film is an enormous sense of gratitude that it was even made. Zhuangzhuang had always been an iconoclastic troublemaker ever since he graduated from a state sponsored film school. He would continuously get into trouble for his films, more notoriously for his examination of the Cultural Revolution in his masterpiece The Blue Kite (1993). In an attempt to control (and possibly stifle) his rebellious spirit, authorities sent Zhuangzhuang to schools deep in the Chinese countryside where it was believed that he would be less outspoken. However, this attempt backfired magnificently, as the lack of government oversight in the outskirts of China allowed Zhuangzhuang to experiment with narrative form and content that would be frowned upon by the authorities. Even worse, he chose to focus his film on the people of Tibet, a topic notorious for drawing ire from Chinese censors. In many respects, it seems like Zhuangzhuang went out of his way to create a film that was as challenging and provocative towards the Chinese censors as possible.
Zhuangzhuang was rewarded for creating this staggering work of art by being challenged by the authorities and having the film banned. It is said that in all of China, less than ten prints of the film were circulated. But by some miraculous happenstance, the film made it out of China and into the West where, along with Zhuangzhuang’s other banned films, it was able to receive the acclaim and praise that it deserved. In just one telling example of the film’s impact, director Martin Scorsese named it the best film of the 1990s (as it wasn’t until over four years after its creation that it managed to be seen in the West). Truly, China’s loss was our gain.
So now, at the end of the film, we return to the shots of vultures descending on a corpse. It begins quite like it started, with a sky burial. What does this represent? A cyclical nature of life? Does this movie suggest that Norbu’s fate would be repeated over and over again by other families? Or perhaps it represents the endlessness of life in Tibet. Men might die, horses might be stolen, and Buddhist temples might be built and dissolve back into the earth, but the Tibetan mountains remain, harsh and eternal to all who seek them.