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Berlin Film Review: ‘Old Stone’

A Chinese taxi driver's scruples get him in hot water in Johnny Ma's excoriating debut feature.

Chen Gang, Nai An, Wang Hongwei, Zhang Zebin, Luo Xue'er, Wang Shenglong. (Mandarin dialogue)

In China, life is cheap but compassion is expensive — a message that “Old Stone” delivers with caustic power through a taxi driver’s misfortunes, following his refusal to follow custom and do a hit-and-run. Chinese-Canadian helmer-scribe Johnny Ma makes a remarkably mature debut, exposing with stunning clarity the infuriating red tape and flawed logic of China’s system regarding criminal responsibility and insurance policies. Even within a trim 79-minute running time, Ma affectingly dramatizes his protagonist’s moral quandary within a social milieu of spine-chilling callousness. Channeling the style of gritty mainland independent films but without the usual longueurs, the film deftly morphs into a suspense thriller with Dostoevskyan undertones; its provocative subject matter should give it long fest legs.

The prevalence of hit-and-runs in China caught national and then global attention in October 2011, when Wang Yue, a 2-year-old girl from Foshan, Guangdong province, was hit by a van which promptly backed up to run her over again before driving off. Eighteen passersby skirted around her, thus allowing another van to drive her over a third time. While such apathy suggests a society that’s crossed the line of basic humanity, Ma’s film explains the complex legal issues that push ordinary citizens to desperate behavior, as well as the tough social environment that forces people to harden their hearts even toward their closest kin: In China, drivers need pay only a small one-off fine if their victims die, whereas merely injuring them would incur lifelong compensation commitments. Bystanders are also afraid to help those in need because of peng ci (knocking at porcelain) — scammers throwing themselves in front of vehicles to exhort money — a practice so common it even features in the mainstream comedy “Devil Angel.”

The yarn begins with taxi driver Lao Shi (Chen Gang) sitting in his car observing a hit-and-run accident: Crowds gather to gawk, but no one tries to help. Flashback to three months earlier, when a drunken passenger grabbed his arm, causing his car to swerve and hit a motorcyclist. The injured man seems to be in critical condition, while police and ambulance take forever to arrive. Despite other pedestrians’ warnings that he’ll get in trouble for it, Shi drives the victim to the hospital himself. The patient, Li Jiang (Zhang Zebin), falls into a coma and Shi becomes liable for all his medical fees.

The police, the insurance firm, the taxi company and even drinking buddies upbraid him for not following procedures, even though none of them responded to his frantic calls at the time. Too scared to tell his wife, Mao Mao (Nai An, the film’s exec producer), who’s enthusiastically planning to expand her home babysitting service to a proper nursery venue, Shi tries to do the right thing his own way. However, his attempts to borrow money from old friend “Captain” (Jia Zhangke’s male muse Wang Hongwei), or to beg his drunken passenger (Wang Shenglong) to record a police statement in his defense, end in cruel humiliation.

It’s the sign of a severe and collective moral crisis that no one appreciates Shi’s basic integrity in wanting to save a life; instead he’s blamed for dragging his family down. His lawyer says, without hesitation, that it would have been better if Li had just died; his wife’s actions to protect the family interests are cold-blooded in their pragmatism. “You never even said sorry!” she fumes, as if his compassion were a fault. Even the victim’s family appears more preoccupied with the financial consequences of the accident.

Like a figure out of classic neorealist cinema, Shi represents the working-class man who’s driven by compunction rather than some noble ideal. He’s incapable of groveling or calculating like his wife because of stubborn, old-fashioned male pride, and it’s no coincidence that his surname, Shi, means “stone.” (His nickname Lao Shi, meaning “Old Man Shi,” also puns with “honest” in Mandarin.) As Shi’s life spirals out of control, Chen makes the man’s inner turmoil compelling even in scenes in which he’s doesn’t utter a word.

At the midpoint, the film moves into murky psychological waters, as something snaps inside Shi and his intentions become increasingly sinister. Hong Kong-American lenser Leung Ming-kai eases the film’s unexpected transition into noir with eerie, darkly lit images of the city’s rural outskirts. Recurrent shots of leafy trees rustling in the wind ominously reference the tall grass grove in “Memories of Murder”; the forest and a marsh become potent symbols for the protag’s heart of darkness, in a macabre ending that provides an ironic example of divine justice.

The supporting actors all move and talk with documentary-like authenticity. Craft contributions from a mixed Canadian-mainland crew show no incongruity in style. Leung captures the buzz as well as grunge of Guangde, a third-tier mainland city in Anhui with deliberately harsh lighting and a smoky, dusty texture. Editors Mike Long and Daniel Garcia maintain superb tension, letting events unfold without hysterical drama.

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Berlin Film Review: 'Old Stone'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb 15, 2016. Running time: 79 MIN. (Original title: "Lao Shi")

Production: (Canada-China) A Maktub Films presentation and production, with the support of Sundance Institute Feature Film Program and Fund. Produced by Wang Jing, Sarah Stallard, Wu Xianjian, Lin Chi-an. Executive producer, Nai An.

Crew: Directed, written by Johnny Ma. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Leung Ming-kai; editors, Mike Long, Daniel Garcia; music, Lee Sanders; music supervisor, Li Ye; art directors, Zheng Cheng, Zhang Xueqiang; set decorator, Qu Wenli; costume designer, Li Ke; sound (5.1), T. Terressa Tate; re-recording mixer, Sheng Yong; visual effects supervisor, John Mattiuzzi; stunt coordinator, Xiao Qinghai, Xu Wenge; line producers, Deng Qing, Li Hua; assistant director, Liu Yan Wen Jun; casting, Wang Daomei, Zhang Yanjia.

With: Chen Gang, Nai An, Wang Hongwei, Zhang Zebin, Luo Xue'er, Wang Shenglong. (Mandarin dialogue)

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