Canada's Top Ten Review: 'Old Stone'

Old Stone (Lao Shi)
(Canada/China, 80 min.)
Written and directed by Johnny Ma
Starring: Chen Gang, Zhang Zebin
Zeitgeist Films / Films We Like
Programmers, critics, and random dudes in festival audiences liken Old Stone to a fusion of flavours. It might be a neorealist film that becomes a noir in one programmer’s notes, a hardboiled Kafkaesque detective story in a writer’s review, or a Greek tragedy crossed with a Russian novel in the eyes of a gushing fan. No matter the palette or the crossbreed of cuisines, though, there’s a universal flavour to the mixed grill that Johnny Ma cooks in Old Stone. This moral fable meets 1990s Hong Kong action flick is an intense, provocative, and extremely promising first feature. Perhaps the essence of a young chef reinventing a traditional recipe gives Old Stone its refreshing bite.

Old Stone screens at Canada’s Top Ten festival after premiering to great acclaim at Berlin last year before scooping a well-deserved Best Canadian First Feature prize at TIFF last year. The film builds upon the impressive perceptiveness in aesthetics and storytelling that Ma displayed in shorts like A Grand Canal. At a time when many of the new voices in Canadian film introduce themselves with stripped back maplecore pics and whiny beefs about Telefilm, Ma’s film stands out with its grand, gritty canvas and all-unnervingly relevant morality play. This drama is built to last.

The film, which originally began as a drama set in North America with Michael Shannon in mind to play the lead, takes advantage of co-production perks to transplant the story to urban China. The setting is at once specific in its palpable sense of place, but the fable at the heart of the film is universal in this increasingly impersonal and dehumanised global landscape. The setting provides two vastly different yet complimentary worlds to straddle the presence of heaven and earth. On the ground, Old Stone stars Chen Gang as Lao Shi (“Old Stone”), a season taxi driver who finds himself in a bind when he hits a motorcyclist and nearly kills him. Higher above, the winds blows atop the swaying bamboo trees of the Chengdu forest. The gods must be shaking their heads and wringing their hands wondering how this saga will end.

Once expects peace and tranquility from the gods’ point of view, since Shi presumably does the right thing from the very beginning. Shi, caught in a moment of panic and distress amidst the growing crowd of jeering onlookers, decides to take the victim, Li Jiang (Zhang Zebin) to the hospital rather than wait for the ambulance to arrive. The decision saves Jiang, who clings to life in a coma, and leaves Shi on the hook for his medical bills when the victim’s family decides that it can’t/won’t pay to save him.

The move should perplex audience members, who assume the all-seeing eyes of the gods as Old Stone rhythmically cuts back to the forest with quiet punctuation marks that meditate upon Shi’s fate. One initially wants fortune to favour Shi, since the decision to save Jiang quickly puts the driver into significant debt as the hospital pen pushers require ongoing payment to keep the victim alive. Shi’s wife (Nai An) is expectedly furious that her family’s savings are draining away to save a stranger. The taxi and insurance companies won’t help much, either, since Shi broke protocol by leaving the scene. Never mind that he did the right thing by saving Jiang’s life—everyone seems to agree that Shi could have best resolved the situation by leaving the man for dead. Perplexing, this dilemma is, for both the heavens and the earth.

Ma thus casts the driver into an abyss as he pays a great toll for doing the right thing. Shi embarks on a futile search to be reimbursed for the bills in city in which a human life is worthless. A hunt for the drunk passenger who caused the accident proves an embarrassment. More appallingly, the victim’s wife states that she’d rather see her husband die so that she may collect his life insurance, rather than pay up. Despite these setbacks, Shi devotedly returns to Jiang’s bedside every day and pays the bills in dutiful penance.

Ma challenges the audience to retain their sympathy for Shi as this moral quagmire consumes the driver. At some point, one must see his act as selfish, rather than selfless, as he compromises himself and his loved ones to help a man whose death would go un-mourned. As the film puts the driver on a revenge quest, it draws the hope for humanity to a precipice as the last good man on Earth becomes a ruthless criminal.

Gang commands the film as he wrestles with the dilemma behind the driver’s quest: to save himself in one life, he inevitably damns himself in the next. Old Stone becomes riveting as the moral anguish of this performance crackles with the intensity of a steely gangster in an old-school thriller. Bathed in swathes of bold red light, the driver weaves through the streets of the city like a hunter who slowly and methodically tracks his prey. The film culminates in an ironically poetic finale that brings Lao Shi to haunting bamboo forest for his ultimate test of fate.

The philosophical weight of Old Stone’s predicament is as saturated as the images of its frames. The subject matter is grim, but moments of subtle humour observe the bureaucratic rituals and niceties, like the offering of cigarettes to officers that go unsmoked of the sharing of fruit that goes uneaten, to reveal the creature comforts that allow such coldness and complacency to endure. Ma has a mature cinematic sensibility that keeps the scope of the film intimate yet grand, while an unconventional score by Lee Sanders keeps one constantly on edge. By zeroing in on this one increasingly frail man, the film offers a snapshot of humanity as it sways and teeters with the delicacy of a tall tree.

Old Stone screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Canada’s Top Ten. It screens again on Monday, Jan. 16 at 6:00 PM.