Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Horse Thief

Zhuangzhuang Tian, 1986, 88m, Tibetan

This is a movie about human beings living in the stark and  pitiless land of Tibet. Tibetans have a clear if not too numerous a presence in North India and I always felt deeply curious about these strangers from a land not too distant yet strange and mysterious. My first memories of these people are of tattered nomads moving in groups. Today they are educated, vocal and have prospered economically on Indian soil.The present film is like a response to an inborn craving to visit this land.

It is set in 1923, thus steering clear of political controversies in China, of which Tibet is now a part. Tibet is the highest plateau in the world, with an average altitude of 16,000 feet. Going by this film, it also seems the most wind blown place. The mists are always floating swiftly away and the pennants planted near temples flutter noisily like arrays of weathercocks. I cannot remember any movie with such splendor of cinematography, not even David Lean at his best. It is a world of transcendent beauty. There is nothing of the picture postcard tailor's dummy prettiness. The azure mountains, snow deserts and water bodies live and breathe as though with the presence of stern deities. The musical score , comprising natural sounds, muffled incantations and a continuous drone punctuated with funereal beats of percussion are an unspoken script or reverent commentary on this majestic extra terrestrial world.

Norbu is a poor member of a nomadic tribe. He has a wife and small boy to support. Though devout he is forced into stealing horses for survival. He is expelled from his group under sentence of amputation if he should return. The film follows his journey through different regions in the course of which he loses his son to disease and sires another one. Religion and ceremonies dominate the life of these simple minded and plainspoken folk. Probably they need belief as a necessity in their lives with death, disease and starvation constantly staring at them. Norbu is a god fearing person and it is only to save his offspring from the jaws of starvation that he is driven to stealing. He contributes a good part of his "earnings" to the temple.

Both the mood and the score is reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Stalker. These snow blown mountains and deserts are, like the Zone, inhabited by a mysterious presence hinting at realities other than the familiar. The word mesmeric applied to this film is not a cliche but an accurate description of it's power.

At the end of the day, people are the same--in Tibet, Calcutta or in the US.

I was introduced to this movie by my friend Nathanael Hood.


Nathanael Hood said...


This is easily one of your best reviews yet.

Keep up the great work!

S. M. Rana said...

@Nat: Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I heard about the movie when I saw the video clip showing Ebert and Scorese discuss about their best movies of the 1990s. Scorsese chose it as one of his favorites and Ebert agreed with him. Now with your excellent review, I am more curious. I hope I will see it as soon as possible.

S. M. Rana said...

@kaist: It's a film of grandeur with a magnificent score--a great Asian film.

Jack L said...

Well after reading Nathanael's excellent review and now you fantastic one, I definitely have to see this film!

S. M. Rana said...

@Jack L

Tibet is close to India and the Tibetans are an established sub-culture. I live in a town on the foot of the Himalayas and often travel to the towns in the hills. Both the people and the terrain in the movie is close and half familiar, which is one reasons I found the film so fascinating.

But this is an amazing film and I would love to know your reaction, if you happen to view it.