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From Cannes: Director Tian Zhuangzhuang Discusses ‘Dao Ma Zei’ (‘The Horse Thief’) as a Cannes Classic

Tian Zhuangzhuang's "The Horse Thief" (1986) was shown as part of this year's Cannes Classics selections.
Tian Zhuangzhuang's "The Horse Thief" (1986) was shown as part of this year's Cannes Classics selections. By Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
By Lucy Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1986 feature, “Dao Ma Zei” (“The Horse Thief”), is one of 19 films to be presented as a Cannes Classic film in this year’s festival. The film features naturalistic and abstract cinematography and follows the journey of Norbu, a Tibetan shepherd who steals horses to help his family in hard times. When he’s caught, his family is forced into exile, and his son’s death drives him to start stealing again. The Chinese government censored some of the Tibetan ritual scenes and added a note that this film took place before 1950, which is when Chinese troops first entered Tibet.

In 1993, Tian presented his feature, “The Blue Kite,” at Cannes, despite the fact that it was banned in China. The film, which tells the story of a boy growing up under the changing times of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, went on to win the Grand Prix and Best Actress Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival that year. Because of the subject matter of the film, the Chinese government suspended Tian Zhuangzhuang from filmmaking for a year. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson on Saturday, Tian discussed his current project, a film that is set in China during the cultural revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was a teenager. He said that the film, loosely based on a novel, is still in its early stages, and he also plans on drawing from his personal experiences.

Editor's note: A translator was present during the interview, and this interview has been edited for clarity.


The Harvard Crimson: What makes “The Horse Thief” a classic?

Tian Zhuangzhuang: That, I really don’t know. I think the Cannes Classics, from my point of view, is more for the preservation of the film. I first came into contact with preserving films 10 or 20 years ago, when Martin [Scoresese]’s project started. He has been preserving all the works that he thinks are classics. He found funding in Italy and some other countries and an organization to do the work. Now, after so many years, the preservation technology has really been advanced and digitized, and it’s made a lot of older works accessible these days. This is a really important thing for the film industry because it’s not inherent — it’s a continuous process that you move along the narrative and history. So “The Horse Thief” is one part of that narrative. It’s not anything special.

THC: “The Horse Thief” explores some of the problems of China in the ’80s. How does it relate to the present?

TZ: Everyone has different feelings and views when watching these old films. “The Horse Thief” is a story about belief, death, and how to survive. No matter which generation you’re from, you’ll always have to think about that. Because at the time, I just experienced the biggest political movement at the time, The Cultural Revolution, of course I was thinking about these themes. Using a Tibetan story is easier to tell than using a Han Chinese story, which would be more complex. Film is not that definite, the edges aren’t that sharp. There’s no clear definition of the lines between everything. That’s why everyone thinks the film represents what they’re thinking, but you would also never see it in real life. That’s why I think it’s interesting to have discussions about a film. It’s more fun.

THC: “The Horse Thief” is also pretty sparse in dialogue. Is that to leave more interpretation for the viewers?

TZ: It’s really because I don’t know how to write dialogue — that’s why there’s not much. I think it’s the hardest to write. Because it’s hard to use someone else’s words, like a character’s, to say what you want to say. But I think that the less dialogue, perhaps the easier it is for people to watch and understand. Sometimes language is a communication system that is unique to where you’re from or a particular community. For example, I don’t understand English, so if you give me an English film I won’t understand the dialogue.

Back in the day of silent films, everyone in the world could understand the films. The movies themselves had their own language. People now are lazier. They think dialogue can explain everything, and it’s easy to write a dialogue and do a translation. So the language of films themselves now has a different direction, like advertisements or TV commercials. I’m not criticizing dialogue in movies, but I think that the most captivating thing about films is its own language of expression.

THC: Did you form most of these ideas from your studies at the Beijing Film Academy?

TZ: Part of it, at least. The teachers at the academy didn’t really talk about these things. When I was in school, all the teachers were teaching Soviet Union films. But back then, the films were spectacular, like Soviet Union films in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, were brilliant films, but did not have a lot of dialogue and a lot of imagery.

THC: Who is the target audience for your next film?

TZ: I try to make films for this century. No director doesn’t want their films to be seen by the people of their age. But sometimes you’ll create films that have completely different tastes from your general audience. That is fate. That’s fate’s problem, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why sometimes I don’t dare make films. I don’t want to repeat some of my previous experiences.

THC: What’s the state of the censorship bureau currently?

TZ: We don’t know yet. You need to try and then you’ll find out. Censorship is like a spring — it’s tangible. You have to push the edge, the boundary, to have some risk to see whether you’ll be affected by [censorship] or not.


—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at lucy.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @lucyywang22.

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