If there’s a single element in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone worth complaining about, it’s all of those goddamn trees. Every so often, the film breaks away from its urban China backdrop to focus on treetops quivering beneath whooshing gale force winds: visual proof of life’s uncontrollable peculiarities in a movie defined by them. The metaphor is clear, but it isn’t necessary, excess punctuation in a film that doesn’t need any. Though Ma’s reasoning for including these shots becomes clear by Old Stone’s climax, the film works without them. They don’t enhance Ma’s meaning—they overemphasize it.
Still, the trees add a grand total of mere seconds to Old Stone’s already short running time, serving to make it only slightly less wonderful than it is. 2016 is a good year for first timers making their names, from Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits to Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha/i>, and if Old Stone isn’t quite as virtuosic as either of these, it’s nonetheless, in its own way, low to the ground, happy to dirty its hands and unforgiving to a fault.
The film is about Lao Shi (Chen Gang), a Chinese taxi driver trying to make ends meet with his wife, Mao Mao (Nai An, also acting as executive producer). He’s a hapless sort, or at least that’s our first impression of him in the film’s initiating sequence, where he hits a motorcyclist with his cab and then tries to do the right thing by taking the victim to the hospital.
In an ideal world, Lao Shi’s selflessness would put him at net zero on the crime and punishment scale (especially considering that his blotto passenger is the one who caused him to lose control in the first place). In Old Stone’s world, which is China’s world, it sets off a chain of events that each involve Lao Shi over a barrel. His split second decision saves the victim’s life, but no one seems as interested in that as in according responsibility for the victim’s medical bills and for the accident itself—and of course those responsibilities fall solely on Lao Shi, a man rich in moral fiber but not so much in legal tender. Old Stone follows that basic setup through to its logical conclusions, offering commentary without wasting words and providing subtext by making it into text: The laws that impel Lao Shi’s downward spiral for taking a wounded man to a hospital are, in fact, completely ridiculous, but Ma shows instead of tells.
There’s a lot to unpack from the ever-increasing pile of wrongs Old Stone continuously levies upon Lao Shi. The obvious starting point is the question of how a moral person can exist in an amoral world, but that, perhaps, is too easy. Anyone can feel outraged on Lao Shi’s behalf—Ma knows it, too, so he doesn’t bog himself down beating that ethical horse. Instead, he dares to wonder if, in fact, Lao Shi made the right choice after all. What is morality, anyways? Is it about sticking your own neck out for your fellow man in an indifferent society that’s driven by bottom lines, protocols and procedures, or is it about doing what’s best for your family and for yourself? When you live in a place governed by coherent but heartless ordinances, empathy is a liability.
None of this makes Old Stone less of a gutpunch, of course, and Ma films its proceedings with understatement and detachment to match the dispassion of Lao Shi’s surroundings. This is a cold movie where Gang’s performance is the only source of warmth, and even he tends to run on the glacial side. Any kind of technical editorializing, any attempt at courting sentiment using the eye of the camera, would undermine Old Stone’s intent. Ma hits those notes just fine without belaboring the point via clichéd nature imagery, which just makes their inclusion all the more puzzling.
Still, Old Stone tells of his promise as a filmmaker. It’s classically made and properly merciless. “When we got married,” Mao Mao says to Lao Shi, “you promised to always take care of us. Did I ask for too much?” Lines like this catch in your throat, and yet we understand where she’s coming from all the same. She knows there isn’t a universal standard for wrong and right, whether you’re a cabbie making an honest living or a rich drunk who isn’t accountable to anybody. This is the film’s harshest lesson, whether you can see the forest for the trees or not.
Director: Johnny Ma
Writer: Johnny Ma
Starring: Chen Gang, Nai An
Release Date: November 30, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.