'Old Stone' ('Lao Shi'): Berlin Review

Old Stone Still 1 -Chen Gang - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Solid debut fusing social-realist drama and noir.

Canadian-Chinese director Johnny Ma's debut depicts a small-town cabbie's descent into madness and crime after having his savings sucked dry in the aftermath of a traffic accident.

Defying its somewhat generic-sounding title, Johnny Ma's gripping criminal thriller Old Stone deploys powerful performances and eerie imagery to convey the moral breakdown of an upstanding taxi driver and the society from which he emerges — one in which people could actually buy insurance to cover themselves from being sued by people they help on the street. Drawing on multiple genres — from Dardennes-style drama to jet-black noir — the pic is, at least in terms of Chinese independent cinema, a refreshing and solid debut from the Shanghai-born, Toronto-raised and New York-educated finance consultant-turned-filmmaker.

Backed by Chinese indie cinema doyenne Nai An — the producer of nearly all of Lou Ye's festival hits, while also a past winner of the best actress prize at Locarno with When Night Falls — this Sundance Institute-backed production will most probably roll onwards through the festival circuit after its bow at the Berlinale's Forum section. The film's next stop is the Hong Kong International Film Festival, where it is in the running for the Young Cinema Competition alongside a slew of other Berlin titles including Life After Life, Barakah Meets Barakah, I, Olga Hepnarova, Tomcat and Nakom.

Old Stone begins and ends with a red screen, a sign of the folly, fury and eventual bloodshed which drives the story, one inspired no doubt by the ceaseless reports in China about drivers killing pedestrians they have hit so as to avoid paying for the victims' long-term rehabilitation fees. And one such report is actually heard blaring from the radio at the film's opening sequence, as Lao Shi (Chen Gang) drives along crammed streets of a small Chinese city to shadow a motorcyclist. The pic then cuts to three months ago, when Shi finds himself fending for himself after a traffic accident downtown; rather than taking flight, he stays, calls for help, goes to the hospital and pays the bills for the victim, somewhat believing he would be reimbursed by company insurance.

Shi's wheels gradually come off, however, as he discovers old-fashioned goodness doesn't pay in a society where procedures and cynicism reign supreme. Rather than getting a pat in the back for ferrying the dying victim to the hospital, Shi is cautioned by the police for leaving the scene, and then told by insurance executives how he might have undermined his own claims for actually helping the victim.

Learning of his victim's financial predicaments through phone conversations with the man's wife, Shi somehow continues footing those bills — and he soon discovers how he's a lone moralist plunged into a theater of cruelty, as his nursery-operator wife (Nai An), his boss (Wang Hongwei) and nearly everyone else turn their backs against what they believe as some kind of monstrous selflessness. Barely being able to hold himself together after losing his cab, his job and his family, Shi gradually succumbs to the cynicism around him, his descent into violence and crime becoming complete when he discovers how even victims can no longer be trusted in this day and age.

As the narrative unfolds, Ma regularly cuts to a quick shot of a forest, its trees swaying ominously in the wind. This could be a metaphor for the mob mentality around Shi, as the cabbie struggles (and fails) to defy peer pressure to conform to the cynical values of the present. But it may also be a visual flourish with which Ma hints at the horrors to come. Starting out steeped in social-realist drama, Old Stone gradually morphs into a full-blown psychological thriller, complete with a devastating denouement unfolding in a muddy field and on dark country lanes — a milieu d.p. Leung Ming-kai (Mundane History, Murmur of the Hearts) conveys as atmospherically as he did with the more simple grit of gloomy urban life towards the beginning of the film.

But the human beings matter here, as Chen has delivered a rugged turn as the wrong-headed and wronged Good Samaritan. Combined with the performances of the supporting cast — Nai's character embodying the self-preservation instinct through her efforts to stop her husband's good deeds, and Wang's representing the aggression key to survival in China's dog-eat-dog capitalist system — Old Stone lays bare how the country's foundering social fabric through an individual's descent into the dark recesses of his soul.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Maktub Films
Cast: Chen Gang, Nai An, Wang Hongwei, Zhang Zebin
Director-screenwriter: Johnny Ma
Producers: Wu Xuanjian, Lin Chi-an, Wang Jing, Sarah Stallard
Executive producer: Nai An
Director of photography: Leung Ming-kai
Production designer: Zheng Chen, Zhang Xueqiang
Costume designer: Li Ke
Editor: Mike Long
Music: Lee Sanders
Sound designer: T Terressa Tate
Casting directors: Wang Daomei, Zhang Yanjia

In Mandarin

Not rated, 80 minutes