In a country still reeling from the fallout of the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers managed the arduous task of ushering in a new age of cinema. The Fifth Generation followed the footsteps of four preceding periods of Chinese filmmaking, each having their own distinctive flavour. While the so-called First and Second Generations established technological expertise in the nascent art of film production, the Third and Fourth Generations fell under the influence of dominant political ideologies of those times: Socialism and Nationalism.
The Fifth Generation defected from the political appeasement it had inherited from the vestiges of the Cultural Revolution. Propagandist tales of exploited workers confronting the bourgeoisie abound in earlier films, alongside heavy censorship of opulent period dramas like The Life of Wu Xun (d. Sun Yun, 1950) and of storylines that were ‘insufficiently revolutionary’ (Lee, 2014). Contesting this trend, the Fifth Generation stood for a frontal, unapologetic form of visual representation and storytelling. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief (1986) is a product of this revitalised landscape of Chinese cinema, a marked example of work that prioritises candid portrayals of life in China.
The film follows the life of Norbu, a Tibetan herder and occasional horse thief. An itinerant pastoralist, Norbu represents a typical man that film audiences might have expected to encounter in this part of the world. Despite being constantly on the move himself, Norbu’s family lives a relatively sedentary life steeped in community and religion. Traversing a patchwork of Buddhist rituals, shamanistic rites, and herding routines, The Horse Thief is a study in practice, paying special attention to everyday concerns of Tibetan life.
In making the struggles of a marginalised group – one that continues to be persecuted today – its focal plot, The Horse Thief went one step further than its contemporaries in demonstrating the power of representation and voice. It weaves together a narrative that questions the Chinese state’s hegemonic domination of Tibet, and advances a brand of courage necessary for challenging an unforgiving communist polity.
While nothing in the plot seems incendiary on the surface, the very act of drawing attention to Tibet is radical to say the least. The systematic erasure of Tibetan culture, which continues into the 21st century, makes The Horse Thief particularly relevant for audiences today.
The Fifth Generation:
Berry, M. (2014). The Fifth Generation and the New Cinema of the 1980s. In Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (pp. 36-56). London: British Film Institute.
Clark, P. (1983). Film-making in China: From the Cultural Revolution to the 1981. The China Quarterly, pp. 304-322.
Ebert, R. (2000, February 26). Ebert and Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s. Retrieved from Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/ebert-and-scorsese-best-films-of- the-1990s
Kaige, C. (Director). (1993). Farewell My Concubine. Beijing Film Studio.
Lee, K. (2014). The Seventeen Years Period. In Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (pp. 28-36). London: British Film Institute
Sun, Y. (Director). (1950). The Life of Wu Xun. Kunlun Film Studio.
Tian, Z. (Director). (1985). On the Hunting Ground. Inner Mongolia Film Studio.
Tian, Z. (Director). (1986). The Horse Thief. Xi’an Film Studio.
Tian, Z. (Director). (1993). The Blue Kite. Beijing Film Studio, Longwick Film.
Xie, T. (Director). (1970). Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Beijing Film Studio.
Yimou, Z. (Director). (1987). Red Sorghum. Xi’an Film Studio.
Cover photo from The Harvard Crimson.