Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Old Stone: China’s Hit-and-Run Mentality
legal system is not concerned with right and wrong. It is about winning and
losing. Currently, everyman cab-driver Lao Shi (“Old Stone”) is losing—badly.
Thanks to a drunken passenger, Lao Shi accidentally hits a motorcyclist.
Instead of killing him, he merely renders the victim comatose. Due to cruelly
ironic laws, Lao Shi would have been better off striking him dead, as many
people will callously and condescendingly explain to him. Doing what seems like
the right thing has dire consequences in Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Johnny Ma’s
feature-length debut, Old Stone (trailer here), which opens this
Wednesday in New York.
course, Lao Shi’s unruly fare bails at the first sign of trouble, leaving the
cabbie holding the bag. He attracts a large circle of bystanders, but the cops
are troublingly slow to arrive. Fearing the man will die without treatment, Lao
Shi drives him to the hospital himself. Unfortunately, he was probably correct.
To make matters worse, by leaving the scene of the accident, Lao Shi violated
established procedure, giving his insurance company and employer an excuse for
Lao Shi is likely on the hook for the man’s lifelong rehabilitation. The cabbie’s
calls to his victim’s wife (representing himself as a hospital employee) only stoke
his sense of guilt and responsibility. However, as his boss and former army
comrade, the “Captain,” makes clear, Lao Shi is on his own—and if he cannot
come to an arrangement with the victim’s family, his financial obligation will
be transferred to his family after his death. He probably is not so worried
about his domineering wife Mao Mao, but his beloved daughter is another matter.
no good deed goes unpunished in Old Stone.
What starts out as a gritty social issue drama evolves into a coal-black noir
thriller, sort of like Blood Simple as
reconceived by Jia Zhangke. Yet, the evolution is imperceptibly smooth, because
the life-and-death stakes are always readily apparent. Ma’s execution is tight,
taut, and tense, but Chen Gang (better known for his TV work) is remarkably
compelling as Lao Shi. His haunting face serves as a barometer, registering all
the pressure and humiliation bearing down on him.
starkly contrasting support, Chinese indie producer Nai An is all kinds of
fierce as Mao Mao, while Jia regular Wang Hongwei is a coolly sinister presence
as the Captain. Together, they are everything Chen’s Lao Shi is not.
It is amazing how each successive narrative
development manages to be simultaneously shocking yet also scrupulously logical.
Clearly, Ma’s film is deeply informed by the well-publicized hit-and-run deaths
of two-year-old Wang Yue and five-year-old Yan Zhe (often compared to the Kitty
Genovese case, except their shocking circumstances are demonstrably true), but
with the victim raised to adult age. Obviously, such a revision is less
off-putting, but it also ultimately allows Ma more opportunities to critique
societal attitudes. Tough, smart, and altogether riveting, Old Stone is highly recommended for anyone who appreciates
independent film when it opens this Wednesday (11/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.
Labels: Johnny Ma