Often presented as a glossy corporate fantasia in the country’s government-approved commercial cinema, China tends to look like a very different place in the independent films that manage to escape its borders (and receive prominent exposure at festivals around the world).
Hardly a new phenomenon, this dichotomy seems to have grown even more severe with the last two generations of Chinese directors — while googly-eyed studio claptrap like “Monster Hunt” slays at the box office, scrappy, auteur-driven fare like Li Yang’s “Blind Mountain” and Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” paint the People’s Republic as a bleak wasteland where many laws don’t apply, and the ones that do seem sadistically designed to test the morality of the people they’re imposed upon. And, of course, to serve as prompts for some very dark thrillers.
“Old Stone” is one such thriller, and it explores the ramifications of one such law. Ripped from the headlines, Johnny Ma’s cold, clear-eyed debut riffs on the 2011 death of a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue, who was run over by two vehicles and lay dying on the street as at least 18 passersby pretended not to see her. While the lack of action was widely ascribed to national feelings of apathy and helplessness, the more direct cause may have been China’s perverse history of punishing Good Samaritans for their noble efforts, as a number of helpful citizens — accused of hurting the victims they were trying to save — were forced to pay the expenses. And if you do accidentally plow into a pedestrian… well, it’s much cheaper to kill them than it is to save their life.
It’s a lesson that taxi driver Lao Shi (Chen Gang) learns the hard way when a drunken passenger grabs him by the arm and forces his cab to collide with a passing motorcyclist. Shi, a blank but decent man who has failed to internalize the cutthroat nature of the modern world, is foolish enough to drive the wounded man to the hospital — kindness may not pay, but in China it can be prohibitively expensive, and Shi soon finds himself on the hook for some staggering medical bills.
What begins as a mitzvah quickly spirals into a Kafkaesque nightmare as Shi digs himself a deeper hole with each last-ditch attempt to get out of trouble; his wife (Nai An) is repulsed by his naïveté, his old friend (“Platform” star Wang Hongwei) won’t lend him any money, and the drunk from his cab (Wang Shenglong) wants to be removed from this narrative altogether. There’s very little sense of flow to Shi’s hapless folly, but the trajectory of his moral decomposition is all too clear for such a bureaucratic mess: In a world where everything is someone else’s problem, there’s only so much a good man can take before he becomes as bad as the rest of us.
Too obvious and haphazard to be boil over with the full caustic fury of its premise, “Old Stone” is nevertheless a bluntly effective thriller that makes great use of its gritty noir touches. Ma — born in China, raised in Canada, and educated at Columbia — likes to immerse himself in his shooting locations before getting to work, and that approach earns his film a complete sense of place that compensates for its lack of visual punch. Individual scenes opt for scrappy competence instead of dramatic compositions, as though any sort of grace might be alien to this scenario, but Ma lingers on and latently captures the rundown grime of Guangde city (ominous shots of lush green forests swaying in the breeze are used to punctuate the action, a verdant counterpoint to the natural beauty that escapes the rest of the movie).
Chen Gang adds to that feeling of verisimilitude — he might be a screen veteran who has worked with major directors like Wang Jing, but his sharp features and hollowed expression fills Shi with the humility of a non-actor. When confronted with the clever twists that complicated this (very short) story’s final act, Shi’s low-key astonishment rings true. Naturalism, however, is really all that Chen has to work with, as it’s hard to carve much of a character out of such a streamlined morality play. Likewise, it’s hard to shake the thought that watching Shi get punished for doing something good is a lot less interesting or ambiguous than it would have been to watch him get away with doing something bad.
Given the direction the world is heading, a lot of people might soon be finding themselves in that second position — America may not share the same eccentricities of Chinese bureaucracy, but it seems to be doubling down on the ethos that inspired them. As a hospital worker mordantly tells Shi about his comatose patients: “The ones who are asleep, they have it easy.”
“Old Stone” opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 30.