by Allan Fish
(China 1986 88m) not on DVD
Aka. Dao ma zei
Carrion for the vultures are we…
p Wu Tiang-Ming d Tian Zhuangzhuang w Zhang Rui ph Hou Yong, Zhao Fei ed Li Jingzhong m Qu Xiaosong art Huo Jianqi
Tseshang Rigzin (Norbu), Dan Jiji (Dolma, his wife), Jayang Jamco (Tashi, his son), Gaobe (Nowre), Daiba (granny), Drashi (grandfather),
Voting on the greatest film of the 1980s, two different critical groups named Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull the greatest film of that decade. Sadly many critical groups are an insular lot, racist by omission as Mark Cousins referred to conventional film histories that largely ignore whole swathes and cultures of world cinema. There are two ironies to that acclamation, however. The first, and perhaps most contentious, is that Raging Bull isn’t even the greatest American film of the 1980s – I’d place Once Upon a Time in America, Heaven’s Gate and Blue Velvet ahead of it at least – let alone world cinema. The more interesting irony is that Martin Scorsese himself, while doubtless sincerely flattered by the acclaim, would I’m sure feel slightly embarrassed by it. He more than any other director knows of the breadth of world cinema and of its mighty reach, and putting the entire American cinema aside, would doubtless be a trifle embarrassed to see his admittedly great film placed ahead of the masterpieces by Fassbinder, Bergman, Kieslowski and Reitz, to name but a few, in that decade. Yet when asked about favourite films of the decade by Roger Ebert, Scorsese himself nominated Horse Thief…but as best film of the 1990s. It took that long to find any audience in the US.
It exposes that common fallacy inherent in the States in particular, that a film doesn’t exist until it premieres there in the eyes of its critics. Many masterpieces of the screen are thus lost or blinkered from view. It’s not that Chinese films of the period were unknown – the Fifth Generation, as they would come to be known, which not only included Tian Zhuangzhuang but Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, were feted the world over – and yet Zhuangzhuang’s films always seemed to come off worst in the foreign distribution market.
Horse Thief follows a Tibetan man, Norbu, accused of stealing horses to support his wife and small son. The family are banished from the village, reduced to becoming nomads, but while they continue to hope for and pray for better things, their inherent poverty reduces Norbu to steal again.
If the synopsis seems basic, it’s because the plot is subservient to the visuals. Though shot in ‘Scope format, the images are deliberately deglamorised, emphasising the sense of wilderness in the landscape and the isolation inherent in the Tibetan way of life. Yet, in deliberately subduing his colour scheme, the imagery has an incredible stark power, a power emphasised by the static camera, the lengthy shots, minimal dialogue and that seemingly eternal whistling of the wind, like a ghostly murmur; the gods looking down on the poor mortals and, if not laughing, then turning a blind eye.
It could be argued that the film does assume prior knowledge of Tibetan customs that may leave one baffled by the importance of certain sequence, not least the first, which ironically is the one used by Mark Cousins in his The Story of Film series, showing what perhaps few foreign viewers picked up on, of the significance of the vultures. The performances are naturalistic in every sense, for this is a mystical work about the forbidding nature of the landscape. One can see its influence on Scorsese in his Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, and while that was a fine, underrated film in its own right, he’d be the first to admit it only had a fraction of the power of Zhuangzhuang’s eye-opener. Here was a film that peeked into a culture hitherto ignored by the cinema, a film to rank with Yol, with Yeelen, with Atanarjuat, with even compatriot Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth; films not only of great visual beauty but massive cultural importance. Whatever one might feel about the deliberate pace, you will never have seen a film like it.