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“The Horse Thief” (1986, Tian Zhuanghuang)


“The Horse Thief” is a 1986 Chinese film that told a story from Tibetan Buddhists in China in the year 1923. This was directed by Tian Zhuanghuang and focused on the main character, Norbu, a Horse Thief who stole a horse from the “headman”, and as a result, was exiled from his community. Following his exile, the story focused on Norbu, his family and their struggles after leaving the community. Throughout the film, Zhuanghuang’s film and sound quality was crystal clear just like films seen today. The crystal-clear images allowed viewers to follow along and to experience the Tibetans and their lifestyle. In addition, prior to this film, very few viewers had seen a film about Tibetan culture of the 1920s, their religious practices, customs, values and way of living. The scenery looked a lot like the Middle Ages in Europe.


The film opened and ended with vultures feeding on dead livestock, and did a great job showing the challenges of their lifestyle, like the weather, a lack of medicine and a plague on the livestock. The Norbu had a wife and a son at the time of the horse theft incident and as a result, all three of them were exiled. Once they settled into their destination, winter came, and their son died as a result of the cold and brutal conditions. Karma played a large role in the film. Norbu believed his previous actions resulted in bad Karma that ultimately killed his child.


A few years later, Norbu and his wife had another son. Upon that, they remained in exile and his community while the main community was watching for a potential plague that was transmitted among the livestock. During those scenes, people were panicked that there were lots of dead sheep laying around, so the community decided to bury all of the sheep, dead or alive to prevent the plague from spreading to humans. At the end, Norbu decided to bring back the new son and wife to the community so they do not have to fear death. Norbu stole another horse and viewers speculated that Norbu had died and it’s unknown what happened to his son and wife because the camp had moved after the plague.


Zhuanghuang’s film was very innovative, creative and interesting to watch because the Tibetan culture was explained in depth using the scenery, their town, temple and the wheels. The use of montage, mise-en-scene were used at the most appropriate times where there was chaos in the community and other times why the community is so different than everybody else. Viewers might not have seen a movie about China in the 1920s, which makes this film innovative and several other stories like “Raise the Red Lantern” may have been influenced by Zhuanghuang’s movie “The Horse Thief”.

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Michael Atkinson
Michael Atkinson
27 apr. 2021

Rough stuff (although I don't think they actually buried/killed all those sheep; they cut away before it's definitively done. The other sheep, though yikes.) But just a note to make it seem even more brutal: the vultures weren't feeding on livestock, that was a human burial site; as in, they don't bury, but put the dead out for the scavengers.

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