The Horse Thief

dir. Tian Zhuangzhuang

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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One of the greatest achievements of Fifth Generation cinema, Tian Zhuangzhuang's oblique, ravishingly beautiful epic set in the vastnesses of rural Tibet was famously praised by Martin Scorsese as the best film he saw in the 1990s.

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One of the greatest achievements of Fifth Generation cinema, this oblique, ravishingly beautiful epic was famously praised by Martin Scorsese as the best film he saw in the 1990s. Like many of his Fifth Generation peers, director Tian Zhuangzhuang was exposed to the remote countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and his hunger to tell the tales of the people who inhabited these far-flung reaches led to this poetic portrait of rural life in Tibet. Featuring minimal dialogue and structured around a series of elaborate Buddhist ceremonies, The Horse Thief tells the simple story of Norbu, the eponymous horse thief, as he struggles to support his family and attempts to give up his larcenous ways in contrition for his young son's death. Stunningly gorgeous in all respects — the film's widescreen cinematography and use of sound is beyond remarkable — The Horse Thief created a new and highly influential form of ethnographic cinema, offering a fascinating glimpse into the seemingly timeless existence of these distant peoples whilst never overlooking their highly specific placement within this politically sensitive land. "Tian's visionary insistence lofts him to the [heady] realm of such anthropological aesthetes as Sergei Paradjanov, Robert Gardner and Werner Herzog. Its vast empty landscape accentuated by a dramatic use of CinemaScope, [The Horse Thief] has an epic sweep — it suggests a western told from a Native American point of view" (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice).