A year or two ago, reports began circulating chronicling a disturbing phenomenon in contemporary China. The nature of the insurance industry there was mangled such that people involved in car accidents where another person was injured had been incentivized to kill the accident victim, because if they lived the individual at fault for the accident would be responsible for their medical bills in perpetuity, and even if that person themselves died, the debt would pass on to their surviving family. The story of just such a murder opens Old Stone, the debut feature from Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma. It’s heard over a car radio, and the film opens with a man stalking a motorcyclist through crowded streets. His name is Lao Shi, which, as far as I can tell, translates to “old stone”, hence the title. “Laoshi” also means “teacher” and this is a film meant to teach us a lesson. (This is also where I point out that I don’t speak Chinese at all.) We flashback to three months earlier and Lao, a cab driver, has accidentally run over a motorcyclist. After calling an ambulance he decides to take the man to the hospital himself, urged on by a crowd of on-lookers, some of whom advise him not to do anything, others who insist the man will die if he isn’t hospitalized right away (a fact later confirmed by the emergency room doctor). This proves to be a mistake however, as in moving the victim, Lao has given his insurance company an excuse not to pay the man’s medical bills, leaving Lao and his family responsible. For most of the rest of the film, we follow Lao’s increasingly desperate attempts to navigate the legal system, raise money for the victim, and find anyone willing to take his side. In true noir fashion, it’s the story of a man who made a mistake, once, and must suffer the consequences.
Ma sticks close to Lao Shi throughout the film, the movie’s perspective becoming increasingly shallow and fuzzy as systemic torments drive our hero off the edge. Chen Gang is very strong in the role. Tall and angular, with beaten down shoulders and sad eyes, he is the embodiment of the everyman ground down by impersonal bureaucracy. An Nai as his wife, a day care operator hoping to expand whose dreams are ruined because of her husband’s foolish altruism is very good as well, and Jia Zhangke regular Wang Hongwei has a supporting role as one of Lao Shi’s not particularly supportive taxi driver friends. Ma has a good feel for the actuality of the Chinese city, its crowded streets, its small gestures of respect and camaraderie and indifference (often involving the sharing of cigarettes), it has all the specificity that Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire (also opening this week) so frustratingly lacks. Unlike the bureaucratic satire of I am Not Madame Bovary, Ma doesn’t seem to find much humor in the absurdities of the system. As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, the sense of accumulated doom is palpable: there’s no respite to be found, no outside perspective that might provide for some possibility of hope and change. We’re locked into the system with Lao Shi; all we can do is take a drink and face the on-coming headlights that, unmercifully, won’t ever arrive.