Mabei shang de fating / Courthouse on Horseback

Director: Liu Jie
Writers: Wang Lifu
Date: 2006

Genre: Drama
Description: Literally a courthouse on horseback, settling disputes, customs versus law, old versus new, how to deal with crazy rural people, humanity, justice and destiny

Cast: Li Baotian, Yang Yaning, Lu Yulai

Crew of note:

Runtime: 101 mins.
Color: Color

Feng, an old judge, travels through the mountainous provinces of China to provide judiciary services for small, rural towns. On this trip, he brings along Ah-Luo, a young judge from the city. Together with Yang, something of a guide and assistant, they set out with their packhorse to settle disputes and enforce the law.

Honestly, there isn’t much in this story that isn’t already described by its title. Yes, there are a couple of twists here and there, but the focus is always with the courthouse and its rounds through the villages. The three characters that inhabit most of the film feel very genuine, and it is easy to feel like this is more a documentary than a film. It gives them a very human character, and indeed, despite the lack of any real action, it is tough not to care about them. Feng, Aunt Yang, and Ah-Luo live different sides of life, and it is easy to see with the way they treat the villagers. The way Feng deals with the cases is also particularly inspired.

Shots are mostly silent, contemplative, and never invasive or too distracting. The focus is with the conflicts of the different defendants, complainants and how the judges deal with the situation. There is much to say about what the different characters and situations mean, but figuring out these things for yourself is part of the fun of watching film.

A little boring and uneventful for sure, but for a film that borders on cinema verite, there is a lot more plot here than meets the eye. An interesting approach to show how rural China has changed little, and how laws and customs continue to rub against each other in places like these. The trials are worth the admission. If you enjoy these “a slice of life” films about exotic, little known ways of life, this will be lovely.

things to take note of
The nature of the arguments
The customs of the towns
The trials and the settlements
The horse knows where it’s going

best moment
The horse in the water

why you should watch this
It’s a courthouse on frickin’ horseback! And it’s a good movie.

rating: 7.7

Plot: B
Cast: B
Cinematography: C+
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Life in the China you don’t see is interesting.
Tuya de hun shi / Tuya’s Marriage by Wang Quan-an
Sanxia Haoren / Still Life by Jia Zhangke
Mang jing / Blind Shaft by Li Yan