China’s legal system is not concerned with right and wrong. It is about winning and losing. Currently, everyman cab-driver Lao Shi (“Old Stone”) is losing—badly. Thanks to a drunken passenger, Lao Shi accidentally hits a motorcyclist. Instead of killing him, he merely renders the victim comatose. Due to cruelly ironic laws, Lao Shi would have been better off striking him dead, as many people will callously and condescendingly explain to him. Doing what seems like the right thing has dire consequences in Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Johnny Ma’s feature-length debut, Old Stone (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.
Of course, Lao Shi’s unruly fare bails at the first sign of trouble, leaving the cabbie holding the bag. He attracts a large circle of bystanders, but the cops are troublingly slow to arrive. Fearing the man will die without treatment, Lao Shi drives him to the hospital himself. Unfortunately, he was probably correct. To make matters worse, by leaving the scene of the accident, Lao Shi violated established procedure, giving his insurance company and employer an excuse for abandoning him.
Now Lao Shi is likely on the hook for the man’s lifelong rehabilitation. The cabbie’s calls to his victim’s wife (representing himself as a hospital employee) only stoke his sense of guilt and responsibility. However, as his boss and former army comrade, the “Captain,” makes clear, Lao Shi is on his own—and if he cannot come to an arrangement with the victim’s family, his financial obligation will be transferred to his family after his death. He probably is not so worried about his domineering wife Mao Mao, but his beloved daughter is another matter.
Truly, no good deed goes unpunished in Old Stone. What starts out as a gritty social issue drama evolves into a coal-black noir thriller, sort of like Blood Simple as reconceived by Jia Zhangke. Yet, the evolution is imperceptibly smooth, because the life-and-death stakes are always readily apparent. Ma’s execution is tight, taut, and tense, but Chen Gang (better known for his TV work) is remarkably compelling as Lao Shi. His haunting face serves as a barometer, registering all the pressure and humiliation bearing down on him.
In starkly contrasting support, Chinese indie producer Nai An is all kinds of fierce as Mao Mao, while Jia regular Wang Hongwei is a coolly sinister presence as the Captain. Together, they are everything Chen’s Lao Shi is not.