THE HORSE THIEF

盗马贼

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Cast: Tseshang Rinzhin, Dan Jiji

Official Selection, Cannes Classics, 2019 Cannes Film Festival

What a difference a soundtrack makes. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s monumental classic about a Tibetan man who is exiled from his community for stealing horses has for decades only been experienced in a Mandarin dub–at the time a requirement of a Chinese industry that didn’t permit languages other than proper Putonghua. The result was an ethnography that was clearly a distortion, an awkward blend of exoticism and propaganda. But, as many have long known but never heard, there exists a rare Tibetan-language version of the film that could dramatically alter the meaning and experience of THE HORSE THIEF as an “ethnic film” produced by the state-owned Xi’an Film Studio. That elusive soundtrack has now been found on a print in France, and is presented here, for the first time in generations. Beyond authenticity, the Tibetan dialogue re-nationalizes the film and asks new questions about the film’s identity, authorship, and audience.

And what a difference a restoration makes. For too long only seen on faded pan-and-scanned DVDs hastily put out by Chinese distributors, THE HORSE THIEF now arrives in a magnificent 4K restoration by the China Film Archive, shown in an enveloping original 2.39 ratio that contains, in the bright greens of the Sangke Grassland or in the colorful prints of Tibetan folk life, the electricity of faith that the protagonist Norbu navigates as a thief, but also as a father looking out for his family. The film is still relentlessly enigmatic – a response to the easily-digestible “ethnic films” of China’s film history – but now the narrative strangeness is more transparently mappable onto the visceral immediateness of the Labuleng Temple, the Gansu sky, or Norbu’s weathered face. 

–Brian Hu

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