The Horse Thief

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The Horse Thief
The Horse Thief (1986) Film Poster.jpg
MandarinDào mǎ zéi
Directed byTian Zhuangzhuang
Produced byWu Tianming
Written byZhang Rui
  • Daiba
  • Jiji Dan
  • Drashi
  • Gaoba
  • Jamco Jayang
  • Rigzin Tseshang
Music byQu Xiaosong
CinematographyHou Yong
Zhao Fei
Edited byJingzhong Li
Xi'an Film Studio
Distributed byInternational Film Circuit
Les Films de l'Atalante
Release date
  • 1986 (1986)
Running time
88 minutes

The Horse Thief is a 1986 Chinese film by director Tian Zhuangzhuang. It follows one of Tian's favorite topics, Chinese minorities, a topic he touched upon in 1984's On the Hunting Ground and would return to in 2004's documentary, Delamu. Like these other films, The Horse Thief shows Tian's fascination with China's ethnic minorities, and in particular the Buddhist ceremonies that these peoples practice.

Film director Martin Scorsese listed the film (which was not widely released in the United States until the 1990s) as his favourite from the 1990s on the television show Roger Ebert & the Movies.[1] The Horse Thief was produced by the Xi'an Film Studio.


The film follows the titular horse thief, Norbu as he struggles to support his family in Tibet. After his son dies, however, Norbu strives to change his ways. Mirroring the starkness of the landscape, the film is nearly free of dialogue, with only the occasional terse exchange between characters.


  • Daiba as Granny
  • Jiji Dan as Dolma, wife
  • Drashi as Grandfather
  • Gaoba as Nowre
  • Jamco Jayang as Tashi, son
  • Rigzin Tseshang as Norbu


On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Horse Thief has an approval rating of 100% based on 9 reviews.[2] Derek Adams from the magazine Time Out gave the film a good review, stating: "It offers the most awesomely plausible account of Tibetan life and culture ever seen in the west. It's one of the few films whose images show you things you've never seen before."[3] Janet Maslin from The New York Times gave it three out of five stars, concluding: "The Chinese film The Horse Thief is best watched as pure spectacle, since it unfolds almost entirely without benefit of dialogue. What little talk there is tends to be plain and to the point (If only we had stew). However, from the scenic and ethnographic standpoints the film is often quite arresting."[4] Jonathan Rosenbaum writing for the Chicago Reader praising the film, saying: "Tian's originality and mastery of sound and image communicate directly, beyond the immediate trappings of the film's slender plot (a horse thief expelled from his clan) and regional culture (Buddhist death rituals), expressing an environmental and ecological mysticism that suggests a new relationship between man and nature. Tian had said that he made this for the 21st century, yet even today it's a film of the future."[5]

In 1988, The Horse Thief won the "Distribution Help Award" (tied with Yeelen) at the Fribourg International Film Festival.[6][7] In April 2019, a restored version of the film was selected to be shown in the Cannes Classics section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.[8]


  1. ^ Ebert & Roeper (2000-02-27), Best Films of the 90s, retrieved 2007-11-07
  2. ^ "Dao ma zei (The Horse Thief)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  3. ^ Adams, Derek. "Horse Thief". Time Out. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  4. ^ Maslin, Janet. "Film: 'The Horse Thief'". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  5. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "The Horse Thief". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  6. ^ "Fribourg International Film Festival - 1988". IMDB. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  7. ^ "The Horse Thief". Mubi. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  8. ^ "Cannes Classics 2019". Festival de Cannes. 26 April 2019. Retrieved 26 April 2019.

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