The directorial debut from Johnny Ma, ‘Old Stone‘ is centred on one man who is pushed to his absolute limits. In a China suburb, a taxi driver Lao Shi (Gang Chen) is implicated in an accident, as a drunken passenger causes his cab to swerve and strike a motorcyclist. Shi is then made to pay the medical bills as the cause of the accident is under investigation.
‘Old Stone‘ begins as a social realist commentary on the humanist nature of random events, but quite early in the film, it becomes a more brutal narrative as the pressure on the protagonist mounts. The piece is punctuated with shots of a large forest, some trees pushed to one side in the wind. The eerie nature visuals give the narrative an uneasy environment. This is combined with an equally isolated score which often uses single sounds or individual notes adding to the feeling of overall dread.
There are moments where our lead character drifts in and out of focus. For my money, the best scene in the film is one that is somewhat inconsequential to the narrative progression. We see a choreographed sequenced in which a large crowd of people appear across a parking lot and side street, all uniform in their work-out style dance routine. Lao Shi, heavily intoxicated, stumbles through them, across them. This is just as his moral character is starting to unravel. It is imagined at times through his eyes in point of view shots, and at other times through close ups / mid-shots of other people as he stumbles among them.
‘Old Stone‘ is perhaps at its best when it addresses these humanist and societal issues. There are many other films where there are similar implications – ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ as well as many other Ken Loach films being immediate examples. There are also similar things at stake in films by the Dardennes – ‘Two Days, One Night‘ being a film where a manual labour employee has to convince all of her co-workers not to take a pay increase so that she doesn’t lose her job.
In this instance, we have a lead character who is made to pay to keep a stranger alive, but at the cost of losing his family, his job, his livelihood. As an exploration of this, Johnny Ma does a stellar job in the director’s seat for the first time. The building of tension through a handheld camera is, at times, incredible. ‘Old Stone‘ having a small budget, and being shot on location in small towns and rural locations is evidently an uphill struggle. This is mainly used to an advantage as the views of nature provide more grounded context for the human element of the film.
Whether it is necessary to push this character to the absolute extreme is questionable. That is seemingly the point of the film, but after a while, the erratic tendencies of the film-making become a little overwhelming.
Thriller | Canada/China, 2016 | 15 | Asian Shadows | Glasgow Film Festival | Dir.Johnny Ma | Gang Chen, Nai An, Hongwei Wang |