Despite the awkwardly translated title, "Courthouse on the Horseback" is a genuine charmer that provides a glimpse of life in some of mainland China's least accessible rural hamlets. Protags are a squabbling trio of government employees on horseback who bring their mobile "courthouse" to isolated mountain communities.

Despite the awkwardly translated title, “Courthouse on the Horseback” is a genuine charmer that provides a glimpse of life in some of mainland China’s least accessible rural hamlets. Protags are a squabbling trio of government employees on horseback who bring their mobile “courthouse” to isolated mountain communities. First directorial feature for Liu Jie, following some work as producer and d.p., is a mix of stirring landscapes, sly character comedy and low-key drama, which add up to a small gem worthy of attention from fest programmers and arthouse distribs.

It takes awhile to sort out the main figures’ precise situations, but we gradually learn that a change in government policy is forcing the retirement of “Auntie” Yang (Yang Yaning), who’d been drafted in her youth as a traveling judge serving her native Moso ethnic group and others in the southwestern Yunman Province. This is unhappy news, since at 46 she is no longer of marriageable or child-bearing age, and will have to separate after years of professional partnership from fiftysomething Feng (Li Baotian), who’s been working this post since 1975. Neither will admit it, but for all their squabbling, the two have developed a mutual dependency bordering on romance.

On Yang’s final trip, they are accompanied by her replacement, recent law school grad Ah-Luo (Lu Yulai). Latter’s citified, by-the-book notions of justice create problems. He hasn’t yet sussed that in these tiny hamlets, the government’s representatives must often bend the letter of the law to honor more deeply entrenched village codes and customs.

While pacing is unhurried, there’s nary a dull moment amid the arduous travel on dangerous pathways, tensions between the protags, and various village crises.

The cases tried most often involve disputes about livestock, and without mediation, can turn into feuds lasting generations. Already in the doghouse for tactless behavior, Ah-Luo exasperates Feng further by allowing their horse to get lost, supplies still on its back. Other incidents of note include a visit to Ah-Luo’s hometown, and to that of Ah-Luo’s bride-to-be. Wang Lifu’s deft script gradually shades into melancholy, to poignant effect, though a final tragic note borders on melodramatic overkill.

Lead thesps are excellent, with vet Baotian making a flavorful seriocomic impression (his drunk scenes are a hoot). Yaning’s quiet authority belies the fact this is her first film. Villagers are mostly played by nonpros, adding to the pic’s authenticity if not its polish. Harrison Zhang’s color lensing takes full advantage of some spectacular scenery.

Courthouse On The Horseback

China

Production

An IC Films production. Produced by Liu Jie, Hsu Hsiao-Ming. Directed by Liu Jie. Screenplay, Wang Lifu.

Crew

Camera (color), Harrison Zhang; editor, Liao Ching-Song; production designer, Cao Jiaan; sound (Dolby Digital), Yang Xin. Reviewed at Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, March 2, 2007. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Li Baotian, Yang Yaning, Lu Yulai, Li Tingliang.
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