OLD STONE (Lao shi) (2016, directed by Johnny Ma, 80 minutes, Canada/China)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The advance word on the new thriller Old Stone, shot in the eastern Chinese city of Anhui by second generation Canadian director Johnny Ma, narrowcasts it as a damning indictment of contemporary Chinese society. In reality, this story of a man who turns desperate while battling the medical bureaucracy feels distressingly universal in its depiction of how governmental dehumanization rubs off on its citizenry. The film may be set in far-off China but U.S. audiences won’t have to squint too hard to recognize it as home.
A scooter rider is already on the ground and bleeding when we first meet Lao shi, (a starkly believable performance by Gang Chen) a cab driver who, the way he tells it anyway, had a drunk customer grab his arm and swerve him into the now badly injured cyclist. As they await a slow-arriving ambulance, the crowd gets restless, yelling conflicting commands to Lao shi. He hears both “Do something!” and “Don’t move him!” With a hospital nearby, Lao shi does move the victim and saves his life, an act of compassion that quickly sets the impending destruction of his life into motion. At eighty minutes, Old Stone gives us a very moving and efficient ride to Hell.
Lao shi is not a complicated man, mostly he tries to keep his composure as his situation spins out of control. He used his ATM card to pay for the victim’s emergency room fees but the victim’s family never arrives to reimburse him. The cab company refuses to support him because protocol demands that the victim not be moved until an ambulance arrives. Lao shi’s wife, harried from running a day care out of their small house, acts as if her husbands show of compassion is the last straw and freezes the bank account. As the indignities build Lao shi begins to question his own sanity for caring about the well-being of a stranger who apparently all of society has written off.
Director Ma films the city as a faceless whirl of activity, with occasional cutaways to the treetops of swaying forests, giving a feeling of a Godless, mute nature coldly observing Lao shi as he acts out his fate. Old Stone seeks to show us that lone beacons of morality and compassion are grist for the mill when pitted against an inhuman system that demands and ultimately encourages such inhumanity from its citizens. The film’s unforgettable closing shot brings final judgment down on Lao shi, with the bleak proclamation that even the hardest old stone will one day crumble.