The Horse Thief (Dao ma zei)

The Horse Thief

I will catch a star just for you…

I’m thankful for short running times. My attention span seems to be dwindling as time goes on, and if I’m not on a good day it is even less so, so I appreciate it when my “second job”, this quest, gives me a brief respite. Of course, if the film in question is also one that catches my attention and provides me an excellent creative outlet to fall into another world, that’s an added bonus. The Horse Thief, by Tian Zhuangzhuang, is just such a film, coming in at just under and hour and a half, and having quite the expressive face about it. There isn’t much of a plotline to this one, but as I go over, that’s not what this one is really all about.

The film concerns a man by the name of Norbu, the titular horse thief, who steals horses to help his family survive in the rugged landscape of Tibet, until tragedy strikes his family and he resolves to change his ways. Well, that’s what I would say if asked about the film’s plot. What the film is really concerned with is the lifestyle of these rural Tibetan people; how they live, their culture and customs, and the day-to-day rigmarole that is their harsh lives. Being Tibetan, the film focuses a lot on the Buddhist customs of the people, and this film is right alongside Kundun with how much Buddhist culture it packs into its running time, especially as short as it is. You can alternately watch it for the moving plot, as thin as it is, or for the cultural expose, which is infinitely interesting (at least for me). I also especially liked the stoic quietness the film exuded; the dialogue was very sparse, and rarely did it involve plot progression. It was all about setting the mood, and the pervasive mood was the number one priority for the film. As for the rest of it, it was quite enticing, from the lush cinematography to the simple but effective acting; all of it was very pleasing to the eyes and ears.

This was a highly effective film at what it wanted to do, and as long as you go into it with that same mindset that the film attempts so highly to cultivate, you should get a lot out of this. Take it moment by moment, minute by minute; watch it entirely in the present moment, one of the key tenets of Buddhist living. This is a film to experience, fully and presently, not just to watch stoically in the background, separated from the film and its content by the ever-reliable silver screen. You need to merge with it, let it wash over you, and experience the waves of emotion and culture the film sends your way, otherwise this will just be another annoyance you’ll have to sit through, and I’d hate for a unique film like this to earn undeserved scorn from any inattentive or unprepared viewers.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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