One mark of a superior foreign drama is a film that is firmly embedded to its cultural matrix, while also telling a story that is highly relatable. Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma threads that needle quite capably in his nerve-wracking debut feature, Old Stone.
Conveyed mainly through flashback, the film hinges on the fateful day that taxi driver Lao Shi (Gang Shen) strikes and severely injures a motorcyclist with his cab. From the moment of the accident, Lao is presented with awful choices: Does he wait for the ambulance as the man’s life bleeds away, or take him to the hospital himself and risk injuring him further? (Crucially, bystanders urge him to do both; contradictory advice from multiple directions is a recurring motif.) The victim’s next of kin can’t be reached immediately, so Lao is stuck with his medical bills, which he cannot afford. Nor can the man who actually caused the accident—a drunk passenger who jerked Lao’s steering wheel—be located. Then things get worse, and then even worse still.
The subtleties of civil politeness, class divisions, and masculine shame in modern China are integral to the way the plot of Old Stone unfolds. Yet Lao’s plight is agonizing to watch precisely because it is so identifiable. His absurd ordeal is similar to those depicted in The Trial and A Serious Man, although Ma’s story is more grounded in crime thriller conventions. Lao is not precisely an evildoer nor a victim, but a man trying (and failing, repeatedly) to navigate a labyrinth of legal and moral quandaries. There is a perversity in the way that bad luck seems to outmaneuver the poor cabbie at every turn, but Old Stone is not a wallow in misery for misery’s sake. It’s a tragedy, and a superbly harrowing one at that.
Old Stone screens Monday, November 7 at 6:45 p.m and Tuesday, November 8 at 2:10 p.m. Both screenings are at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. For tickets or additional information visit the Cinema St. Louis website.