Stunning Debut Chinese Film Depicts a Noir-like Spiral Amid Crushing Bureaucracy



Things are not going well for Lao Shi. Just an ordinary cab driver in China, trying earn a living for his large family, when one day, he finds himself at fault in an accident.  Lao’s cab hit a pedestrian, nearly killing the man.  With a crowd gathered debating what to be done, Lao, out of desperation, collects the stricken victim, and rushes him to the hospital.  A life is saved, another is quietly ruined.  Meanwhile, nature is indifferent, as the wind blows lazily through a cluster of trees.

At a taut eighty minutes, Old Stone is a consistently engaging moral drama.  A downward spiral stemming from the harshest of Film Noir fatalism, Old Stone is a contemporary tale of a good man and the fallout of a very bad day.  An Old Testament Job-like flurry of misfortune befalls Lao as he is told that, although he saved the victim’s life with his swift action, he’s now held liable for the considerable medical expenses, and, this whole thing would be a lot simpler had the guy just died.  Consistently, in every corner of his life, fortune conspires against him, negative consequences spooling forth from a system that seems to only punish good deeds and decent intentions.

Lao Shi is played by Gang Chen, an actor clearly capable of the most astonishing levels of subtle pathos, as demonstrated with this award winning portrayal.  Although his IMDb profile only shows two films as his entire filmography (this one, and a 2008 comedy called The End of the Year), his face tells a thousand stories.  Both fragile but also demonstrating sturdy resolve, his character Lao must be the “old stone” which the oblique title is referring to.

Gang Chen in OLD STONE.

Shot with a dread-inducing lack of saturation while not lacking the color and arbitrary light of the big city, Old Stone is beautiful in its visual melancholy.  Realized with an overwhelmingly “film grainy” look, first-time feature director Johnny Ma utilizes a sense of urban mundanity not unlike how Scorsese did it with Taxi Driver – another movie with a solitary, ground-down cab driver as its lead.

Having already collected several awards on the festival circuit, Old Stone makes it clear why Johnny Ma is a filmmaker with some heat behind his name.  His unique background as a Chinese-born Canadian immigrant, as well as his professional background in both finance and fashion, may very well be what informs the film’s reality of bureaucratic oppression and callousness.  While not a happy film, Lao’s journey is never a chore to endure, as Gang Chen’s performance coupled with Ma’s focused humanity elevated it to something beyond harsh social commentary or the sadistic undoing of an individual.

Old Stone arrives on Blu-Ray in North America courtesy of Kino Lorber’s recent partnership with Zeitgeist Films.  In Mandarin with English subtitles, the film, but also it’s meager extras, take Westerns fairly deep into a completely foreign yet fundamentally familiar culture.  With image and sound quality suitable for a film as recent as this one, the disc also includes a handful of compelling deleted scenes (the type of material that demonstrates Ma’s intent focus, as most any filmmaker would opt to simply keep this material as part of their shorter-than-average film), two minutes of “behind the scenes footage”, which is literally just someone’s smartphone footage of Gang Chen mixing with a flash mob dance on the set, and one of Ma’s celebrated short films, “Grand Canal”.

The legacy of Johnny Ma’s debut feature may not yet be carved in, well, stone, but the film is certainly deserving of the close attention of cinephiles and those interested in China and the soul-eatineffects of contemporary bureaucracy.