Second Time Around

Kundun and Horse Thief
Martin Scorsese has allowed that his 1997 film about the early life of the Dalai Lama, Kundun, was influenced by his screening of Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang's Horse Thief, a 1987 movie shot on location in Tibet. The UC Theater's screening this Sunday of these two fine films is a great chance to see how they play off each other. As outsiders to the culture, both directors employ a battery of modernist devices to place us inside the heads of their protagonists. Scorsese forces us to identify with his child hero through subjective point-of-view shots, breaking things up with an occasional swish pan or sudden zoom. Sometimes Marty's bag of tricks yields up only an expressive gimmick, as in a giant close-up of an eye seen through a telescope, which points up the "looking" theme but is distractingly disembodied. Overall, however, Kundun's jumbly mix of long-shot landscapes and close-up candles and other holy paraphernalia works very well in forging another link in Scorsese's chain of films about the experience of exile, whether emotional or, as here, literal.

Shooting in Morocco as he had to, Scorsese's Tibet looks as much like an Italian western as the high Himalayas; a few shots of red-robed monks on horses in sandstone landscapes even conjure up John Ford's Monument Valley. Tian's Horse Thief is a tale of a 1920s outlaw whose acceptance of his culture's values costs him everything. Scorsese watched it to see what the real Tibet looked like, but carried away something of that impressive film's spirit: "It was simple, but not objective -- it was very emotional," he told interviewer Gavin Smith (Film Comment, January-February 1998). In 1994 Tian told Philip Lopate in the same magazine that with Horse Thief he was searching for "formal beauty. A beautiful story, a beautiful environment, very beautiful colors, beautiful sound. Almost like an exhibition." He succeeded, and while his highly aestheticized filming of Tibetan life and rituals may have been motivated primarily by his search for beauty, he still got into censorship trouble for filming them at all. (In no way does Tian's film condone or promote the Chinese government's stern policy toward Tibetan traditions. Something of a dissident himself, he was banned from all future work on the mainland in 1994 after his great memoir of village life under communism, The Blue Kite.) Horse Thief's gentle look at a harsh life, harshly lived, depicts the fate of all rebels in the real world, and is, in its way, as anticipatory of Tiananmen Square as it is of the PRC's "cultural genocide" against Tibet. Tian uses scattered papers, one of many of the film's memorable images, to contrast, as he put it, "certain Buddhist beliefs with the reality of China." As both of these films teach us, and as the Tibetans have learned to their sorrow, reality usually wins.

-- Gregg Rickman

Kundun screens Sunday, May 31, at 2:35 and 7 p.m. (with Horse Thief at 12:45, 5:10, and 9:35 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-3456. Kundun also plays alone Sunday and Monday, May 31 and June 1, at 2, 4:35, 7:15, and 9:55 p.m. at the Red Vic, 1727 Haight (at Clayton). Tickets are $6; call 668-3994.

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