The feature debut of Chinese writer/director Johnny Ma, Old Stone is a taut, efficient little thriller. Lao Shi (Chen Gang) is a taxi driver who accidently hits motorcyclist Li Jiang (Zhang Zebin), when a drunken passenger grabs his arm while driving. At the accident scene, Lao Shi takes Li Jiang to the hospital in order to save the victim’s life. He also assumes financially responsible for the medical bills. While Lao Shi keeps this information from his wife, Mao Mao (Nai An)— because he doesn’t want to worry her—she becomes irate when she discovers the serious financial trouble her husband has caused their family. Mao Mao tries to get them legal representation, which Lao Shi initially resists; he hopes that things will work out by themselves.
Of course, they get more complicated. Li Jiang slips into a coma, and Lao Shi’s debts become greater. Moreover, his company gives him difficulties, there are issues with the insurance, and at the police station, Lao Shi is frustrated by the delays in filing the accident report. When Lao Shi is told his life would have been better off if he had let Li Jiang die, the taxi driver starts to consider that as a possible solution to his problems.
The bulk of Old Stone consists of flashbacks that show the despair Lao Shi experiences as a result of hitting Li Jiang with his cab. Ma nicely develops the tension between the two men and what ultimately drives Lao Shi to seek revenge on his victim. The film culminates in an extended chase sequence that has a very dark and satisfying ending.
Ma’s purpose with his film is to shed light on the hypocrisy and bureaucracy in China. Lao Shi is trying to be responsible for his actions, but he acts irresponsibly. An interesting scene has Lao Shi drunk and wandering through a formation of people exercising in public. Old Stone also shows how Lao Shi’s friends, like the Captain (Wang Hongwei), try to work the system to their advantage.
Despite the film’s many strengths—and count Chen Gang’s solid performance among them—there are a few scenes that strain credibility. It is curious that Lao Shi finds (and keeps) his drunken passenger’s cell phone that was wedged in the backseat of his impounded cab. Likewise, a key scene in Li Jiang’s hospital room feels contrived.
Nevertheless, these are minor flaws in a film that takes a nice slow-burn approach to meting out justice in a crooked world.
Old Stone opens today at the Ritz Bourse.