Review of Courthouse on the Horseback (马背上的法庭, 2006), A 3C Films, Beijing Children’s Art Theater production
Director: Liu Jie
Producers: Liu Jie, Hsu Hsiao-ming
Screenwriter: Wang Lifu
Editor: Liao Ching-song
Cinematographer: Harrison Zhang
Art Director: Cao Jiaan
Sound: Yang Xin
Cast: Li Baotian, Yang Yaning, Lu Yulai, Li Tingliang (Mandarin/Chinese dialect dialogue)
Running time: 105 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.
Shaoyi’s Rating: B- (Fair)
Although Liu Jie was a relatively unknown before his directorial debut Courthouse on the Horseback won the prize for a film in the Horizons section at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life won Golden Lion at the same festival), he has been a no stranger in the Chinese film circle. Graduated from the Cinematography Department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1991, Liu worked as a cameraman/DP for Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993) and Beijing Bicycle (2001) and has been a close friend of the diversifying group of filmmakers collectively labeled the “Sixth Generation.” As his debut, Courthouse shows a versatile Liu who has a potential to become a force to be reckoned with in the art film world.
Set in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, a location that has been favored in recent years by such filmmakers as Zhang Yimou (Rising Alone for Thousands of Miles), Zhu Wen (South of the Clouds), and Zhang Jiarui (The Road, When Nuoma was Seventeen), Courthouse opens with a static shot of a female courthouse clerk Auntie Yang being advised that she will be no longer needed after her last trip to the mountainous region (a similar framing and narrative strategy used in the opening shot of Beijing Bicycle). Then, the camera shifts its focus to a long and meandering red-earth path, which echoes the monotonous pace of the film, where a traveling courthouse group of three, the female clerk included, slowly walks into the frame. The group is led by judge Feng (played by famed actor Li Baotian) in his mid-50s, who is not always as serious as he first appears, and joined by the female court clerk, who belongs to the Moso Ethnic Group (the minority that is believed to still retain the social structure of matriarchy) and Ah-Luo, a recent college law graduate of Yi Ethnic Group. They share a companion in an old horse, which is carrying all the court facilities, including a round-sized national emblem, the symbol of the state authority. According to the director, there are nearly one thousand such mobile courthouses in China, and their job is to deliver court decisions to as well as to make on-site settlements for the disputes of the ethnic minorities living in the isolated regions that are impossible to reach through normal transportation means (a parallel to Huo Jianqi’s Postmen in the Mountains). The group travels from village to village and, in the process of settling the disputes, which range from an ancestor grave dug up by pigs to the killing of sheep trespassing on the arbitrarily drawn “territory” of a neighboring village, the three also find themselves oftentimes at odds with each other: judge Feng and Auntie Yang apparently have developed a tacit intimacy over the past years, but the two are never able to directly express their feelings; Auntie Yang sometimes gets a little uneasy when judge Feng becomes irritated with all the trivial disputes brought up by the local people. On the other hand, Ah-Luo is in constant argument with judge Feng and, by the end of the film, he simply runs away with his bride after a confrontation with Feng, leaving the latter traveling lonely in the zigzagging path (Auntie Yang stays in her own village after the duty is over). The film ends with judge Feng walking out of the frame, an indication that he might have followed the path of his old-time friend…
Courthouse is a decent film with subtle political and social messages. This is especially clear when the national emblem is lost and then found with judge Feng claiming the emblem is just as “holy” as the image of Buddha worshipped by the local ethnicities. The film also has an ethnographic dimension, which oftentimes makes it look more like a documentary than a fictional film. With a small budget (just over three million yuan), it is intended to be an “art film.” The audience, therefore, should not feel surprised when they are presented a film marked by prolonged static shots (the camera seldom moves), slow/monotonous pace, amateurish performance (with the exception of the lead actor Li Baotian), little drama, and an absence of music score. This is where the film’s weakness lies: perhaps the director should have made a documentary instead of a feature out of the subject.