Thursday, July 26, 2012

At a Gallop

Film: Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief)
Format: DVD from Knox College Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s not too difficult to suggest that one of the main problems with the religious lives of most Americans is that it happens on Sunday for an hour or two and is then pretty much ignored. One of the attractions to more Eastern religions is that such belief systems tend to be all-encompassing; they pervade all aspects of life. Religion becomes less something like a job, but something that is eternally present. I’m oversimplifying, of course, and I’m certain there are those who will take exception to what I’ve just said. However, it’s one of the reasons I dabbled in more Eastern thought for a number of years. It felt like it was more about adopting life and daily tasks to the necessities of belief rather than making time in our lives for something external.

However, this incorporation of belief into virtually everything puts me at a loss for a film like Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief). This is a beautifully made film, make no mistake. It is also entirely enmeshed in Tibetan Buddhism, which means that a great deal of what is almost certainly filled with meaning and symbol washes over me without comprehension. I simply don’t understand why particular things are important or meaningful, because I am not a Tibetan Buddhist, or a Buddhist of any stripe. Asking me to would be like asking someone who has talked to a couple of Christian missionaries to find the Christ symbolism in a work of art. It’s just not going to happen, and it’s going to frustrate everyone.

Norbu (Rigzin Tseshang) is a thief. He exists on the fringes of his clan and makes his living as the eponymous horse thief. Life is good until he is discovered as a thief, and is booted out of the clan in an effort to restore purity. He, his wife Dolma (Jiji Dan) and their young son Tashi (Jamco Jayang) are expelled, and the family retreats up the mountain. Soon Tashi becomes ill, and both Norbu and Dolma do everything they can to save him, but it is in vain and Tashi dies. Later, Dolma becomes pregnant again, and in an effort to keep his family alive, Norbu attempts to rejoin the clan, but is forced back into a live of thievery to maintain his family.

It’s worth noting here that I’m calling the main character “Norbu” because this is the name given him on IMDB. The name he is called in the subtitles is different, but I don’t recall it offhand. That, in fact, highlights one of the main issues with this film. While dialogue is very much secondary in the telling of this tale, the dialogue we are given in the subtitles is ridiculous, and Engrish at its very worst (or best, depending on your point of view). We get comments like “I am not horse theft” when Norbu proclaims his innocence. I know what’s meant and it’s generally not that difficult to interpret, but still, it comes off as if the translation was simply pushed through Babelfish and considered good enough.

In terms of the film itself, that’s the biggest problem that can be considered the fault of the film. A much larger problem is that the film is so deeply immersed in Tibetan Buddhism (as mentioned above) that I’m certain a great deal of it washed over me without my even noticing that I’d missed something. There are frequent references to prayer wheels, for instance. I know what a prayer wheel is, and I know the basic function of them, but that doesn’t mean that I understand their cultural value at the sort of level required for this film.

I feel like that’s my fault, even though it really isn’t—it’s just that I’m not capable of this sort of cultural shift to the level needed to really understand this film on a deep level. I’m reminded of Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau and it being suggested that while anyone could enjoy the film, it was only the French who really understood everything involved in it. The cultural separation here is even greater, though. I can certainly appreciate the beauty of the film and the landscapes and the fantastic visuals, but their ultimate meaning and multiple meanings are lost for me.

This is disappointing, but through no fault of Dao Ma Zei. I think there’s a great film here that I just can’t get at because of my own cultural blinders. It’s worth noting that this was the film no less a luminary than Martin Scorsese named as the best film of the 1980s. I wish I could feel the same way, but there’s too much I don’t get standing between me and what’s on the screen.

Why to watch Dao Ma Zei: It’s beautiful.
Why not to watch: If you aren’t immersed in Tibetan culture, a lot of it will be lost.


  1. I've made a study of Buddhism, but am by no means an expert on the Tibetan strain. I can tell you that prayer wheels, which aren't a part of Korean Buddhism, are rooted in the primordial notion of the Wheel of the Law (法, Dharma); the Buddha is often referred to as he who began to turn that Wheel. Every revolution of a prayer wheel represents an iteration of a prayer; the words need to be kept in motion to be efficacious (which is obviously more of a folkloric belief than a sophisticated philosophical one).

    In Asian culture in general, but especially in South Asian culture, it's often the case that the content of a prayer, dharani/mantra, or sutra isn't as important as the form: the mere utterance of the syllables is enough to produce divine effects. (Shades of this belief can be found in certain madrassas, where recitation of the Koran by non-native Arabic speakers is more important than actually understanding the words.) By the same token, the mere physical movement of carved words of prayer is enough to bring the prayer to life.

    You probably already know all of the above; it's pretty much Buddhism 101 kind of stuff. I'd be curious to know what symbols you think you're seeing whose significance you might be missing.

    Aside: a Korean film that came out in the 1980s, "Why Did Bodhidharma Go East?", is full of Korean culture and Seon/Zen symbolism (the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, allusions to various kong-an/koan, etc.); not the best film for the uninitiated to watch. I was able to catch most of the references, and while my culture-sleuthing ability in the Korean arena doesn't guarantee I can be of any help re: you and this Tibetan film, I hereby offer my services, such as they are, as cultural interpreter. Maybe I can shed light on a Tibetan Buddhist trope or two.

    1. I was guessing you might be the first to reply here, and was hopeful that you would. And yes, what you put up about prayer wheels is what I knew about them and about 20% more.

      There were a lot of birds in this, a lot of vultures. Plenty of open landscapes. Lots of horns and people blowing them. Plenty of spinning things, which I attribute as adjuncts of the prayer wheels. Also people with those little drum things that have beaters attached to them--you spin them back and forth and the beaters impact the drum head (I have no idea what these are called).

    2. Vultures are a metaphor for impermanence: they carry off the remains of the dead, and the dead never stop being part of the Great Churning. You mentioned Scorsese; his "Kundun" features a "burial" scene in which a body is wrapped in cerements, taken to a mountaintop, chopped up, and left for the vultures. I don't know the significance of the horns, but if you're talking about those massive, deep-throated Tibetan horns, those also appear in "Kundun" as a sort of aural leitmotif. Probably an outgrowth of Buddhism's evolution in Tibet. They certainly play a role in monastic pageantry.

      I'd likely chalk up those views of open landscapes to "culture," not "religion": Tibet is part steppe, after all, and the land shapes the people. As for those drums... I'm stumped. I'd need to do a bit of research into Tibetan music, but for the life of me, I keep getting an image of the drums in "Karate Kid 2." At a guess, those drums, which are known throughout all of Asia, are probably rooted more in the folk life of the populace than specifically in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

      The "spinning things" to which you refer may well be symbols of cyclicality and process, i.e., change/impermanence, as well as a sort of samsaric eternal return-- keeping in mind that samsara is generally considered a negative condition, although Mahayana Buddhism subverted that idea by equating samsara with nirvana (esp. in Zen, but also to some degree in Tibetan Vajrayana), thus setting up a sort of aesthetic-moral paradox: this present moment is illusory/unsatisfactory (maya/dukkha), but it's also the most real/perfect moment there is.

      Karma is worth mentioning here, or at least the folk conception of karma, i.e., what goes around comes around. Your review mentions that, once Norbu's thievery has been exposed and his family has been ejected from the clan, his son Tashi dies. A Buddhist reading of that would be them's his just desserts-- karma-- and would also be consistent with the First Noble Truth that life is characterized by suffering.

      Final note: I just typed "Tibet vultures" into Google and got this Wikipedia entry on Tibetan "sky burial." Interesting.

    3. It's interesting you mention the folk view of karma because that's something that I thought as well. It feels very much like the idea that at some level this film was about that idea--crime, atonement, punishment, and then a continuation of the cycle.

      You're the man, as always. Now I want to see it again.

    4. Glad to be of service. And that dude in the photo looks like Nick Cage.