Most films, even the excellent ones, fit squarely into an existing tradition of cinema. You have seen the same sort of thing before, even though the approach and many aspects of the film are novel. Once in a great while, more often for adventurous movie-goers than those who see only Hollywood films, you come across something that is really new and different. Even less often, it is new, different, and good. Such a film is like a revelation. The first Bergman movie one sees, or the first Tarkovsky, or the first Fellini, can be this sort of experience, a sudden broadening of one's private definition of what film is. For me, Horse Thief is such an experience.
I have seen new Chinese films before, three or four of them, and, while they were largely good films, they were rather conventional. Typically, they seemed to combine filmmaking techniques from the classic Hollywood era with some of the less innovative elements of Japanese cinema, filtered through a residual layer of Communist/socialist political thought. (Though the political content has apparently decreased dramatically in the last decade.) Horse Thief is something entirely different. Nothing in the film suggests leftovers from the 1930's, or borrowed aesthetics, or Communist propaganda. Vital, stunning originality is its mark.
The story is set in Tibet in the 1920's, though it might as well be the 16th century, for all the effect that the modern age has on the area. A poor man must steal horses to support his wife and young, adored son. Despite his disreputable occupation, he piously contributes the bulk of his spoils to the temple. From this simple situation, a very minimal plot propels the film. But Horse Thief is not a film to watch for plot. Rather, the film presents a slow, careful revelation of the difficult lives of Tibetans, with emphasis on the vital role of religion in their lives.
Practically every action taken by anyone in Horse Thief is directly related either to survival or religion. The land is harsh, and only constant effort permits people to live there. The characters only take time away from this struggle to worship their god. Gradually, as one watches the film, one realizes that the constant attention to worship is an intimate part of survival. Life is so hard that only sacred intervention can save the characters from death. Every turn of the prayer wheel, every ceremonial dance, every sacrifice and devotion has the practical aim of supplicating for the divine intervention that alone can ensure survival. The greatest disasters of the film stem from unluckily angering the deity. One of the most surprising things about this film from the People's Republic of China is that the peasants' attitudes about religion are taken completely at face value. Perhaps Buddha does not exist, and does not intervene in the daily lives of Tibetans, but Horse Thief offers no evidence that he doesn't, and seems to suggest that he does.
But even the unexpected theme of Horse Thief does not capture the importance of this film. The photography and direction are the film's most innovative aspects. Tian Zhuangzhuang, the director, has a unique visual style, favoring long, static shots. The typical presentation of long scenes in most movies is to break the scene into several shots, each taken from a different angle, at a different distance from the subject. Often, the only reason for breaking up the scene is visual interest. The director fears that we will be bored by a single, static shot covering several minutes, so he jazzes the scene up. Taken to the extreme, this approach yields MTV-style films, in which no shot lingers more than a few seconds - editing as rock and roll. Only daring directors will let their camera be still, and then only on the most interesting subjects, as a calculated effect.
Tian takes a vastly different approach. He treats the camera as a distant viewer, almost godlike in its unblinking perspective. A shot will last for several minutes, with the action taking place far beyond the foreground. Camera movement is mostly used to quietly, slowly follow a moving subject, and cutting within a scene is rare. But Tian is not indulging in cinematic primitivism. For one thing, the photography is ravishingly beautiful, capturing the awesome splendor of Tibet and the rich colors of its culture. More tellingly, several sequences show that Tian is intimately familiar with more complex uses of the camera. His sparing use of movement and editing allows him to extract tremendous impact from the same devices that other directors use routinely. A sudden, split-second cut registers surprise and shock as it never could in a typical film. A montage of overlaid images beautifully suggests a blurring of the lines between the everyday and the mystical. A tracking shot following two characters as they walk in circles around a building meshes beautifully with an old woman's use of a prayer wheel throughout the scene.
If Horse Thief is reminiscent of any other film, it must be 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film, too, made great use of lengthy shots, deliberate pacing, and exquisitely calculated technical flashes. The masterful use of wide screen is also a common element between the films. But Kubrick, either intentionally or accidentally, was forced to sacrifice all humanity from his film. His characters were largely flat and lifeless. The characters in Horse Thief are vitally real, with none of their humanity drained by the distant perspective of the camera.
Horse Thief is decidedly not a film for everyone. It moves slowly, the plot is simple, and the director demands effort from the viewer. Everything you need to know is shown, or told, but the viewer must pay attention to the film, for nothing will be repeated solely for clarity. Tian cares less about explaining to the inattentive than he does about achieving his vision. For serious lovers of film, Horse Thief must not be missed, and must be seen on a movie screen. (A videocassette could not possibly capture the magic of this film, and, on a purely mundane level, would chop off the vital edges of the widescreen images.) I would not be surprised if, a year from now, I considered Horse Thief to be the best film I saw in 1989.
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