Old Stone


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Old Stone
"There are strong performances throughout, but it's Gang Chen who carries the film with every furrow of his brow and stoop of his shoulder."

The rain-wracked trees are pushed back and forth by the wind, invisible forces manifesting in physical action. The score oppresses, a cold weight. The most reductive way to look at this is as Ken Loach's Death Proof.

If that seems a whip-saw juxtaposition then that is intentional. The tonal variation in Old Stone is perhaps not so. In places incredibly keenly observed, built in and around performances that are naturalistic, minimal, in others it makes heavy handed use of the apparatus of cinema (in particular musically) , and at others it's maddeningly in between. There are interstitial moments of that forest, weathered, that might be one or the other or both.

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This is Jonny Ma's debut feature (he's been producing award winning short films since at least 2010) and while I had problems with it that's not because it isn't good. It crafts an intense and personal story out of a contradiction between impulses, the conflict between spontaneity and bureaucracy, a struggle between humanity and grim economic reality. Anchored in a gripping performance by Gang Chen, the film follows Lao Shi as he navigates the consequences of an accident. His taxi strikes a man, and he helps him. In the process he becomes liable for the victim's medical costs, and from such incidents are perverse disincentives made.

It's a topic that's had a fair amount of discussion in the media, and it feels awkward to reveal it in the context of a review but it's pretty well foregrounded within the film. Though initially its chronology is uncertain, its dottings back and forth and of forms and such are sometimes drawn with a pretty broad brush. The radio in the cab sometimes explains things, and it's less the choral contribution of Vanishing Point's Super Soul than the "as you know" of Austin Powers' Basil Exposition.

It's made all the more infuriating by the skillfulness of many of its observations. The way that status is shown and asserted and sought in various situations is neatly drawn, a moment at a wedding where the words "beautiful occasion" are partnered with two youths carrying a third outside to vomit is without flaw. The opening, the flare from the red of the titles to the wet and verdant wilderness, is stunning, the focus on bottles in hands (and too often also on steering wheels) is exacting. The use of sound to foreground is strong. The tinny chatter of a thermal printer becomes a thing of dread, warm electric footsteps of approaching doom.

There are strong performances throughout, but it's Gang Chen who carries the film with every furrow of his brow and stoop of his shoulder. In conversations with lawyers (his and others), with bosses actual, honorific, and familial, he is as the title - worn down, but remaining. Caught up in a Kafkaesque stream, bundled about by a Byzantine confluence where the legal and the moral are in opposition, he is weathered, he endures. When his moment of question comes, it is striking. One cannot wrestle with these questions without coming away dirty, and Old Stone does not try. At its heart the film asks moral questions of its characters and its judgement, its willingness to give us the space to come to our own opinion of their decisions is unflinching.

What weakens the film is that at times it is perhaps too forceful. It's a film that could do with being shorter, not because it doesn't work but because excision here and there would make this a more efficient instrument. It pushes its point once it's already made it, and that overkill is its only flaw. As a glancing blow Old Stone might leave audiences reeling, but it labours the point (backs the truck up, if you will) so heavily that it may leave audiences bruised rather than moved.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2017
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A psychological thriller about a taxi driver battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China.

Director: Johnny Ma

Writer: Johnny Ma

Starring: Gang Chen, Nai An, Hongwei Wang, Zebin Zhang, Xue'er Luo

Year: 2016

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Canada, China


Glasgow 2017

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