Chen Gang in Old Stone (Zeitgeist Films)

Chen Gang in Old Stone (Zeitgeist Films)

yellowstar Old Stone runs a brisk 80 minutes and wastes not a moment of it. Focusing tightly on one character, it feels like a novella as much as it is film.

That character is Lao Shi (Chen Gang), a middle-aged taxi driver in a good sized Chinese city who hits a bicyclist when a drunken passenger grabs his arm while he’s driving. When it’s obvious that the ambulance he called is not going to come in time to save the victim, Shi takes it upon himself to drive the injured man to the hospital. Once there, he pays the hospital bill under the assumption that the insurance company will pay him back. No such luck. Turns out he didn’t fill out an accident report with the police, and he needs witnesses. To make matters worse, the young man he hit has lapsed into a coma and has no money.

So, Shi attempts to double back and to get the insurance company to pay up. As anyone who has read Kafka or seen any Terry Gilliam movie, bureaucracy exists to grind the life out of you. And so it goes here. Loathe to ask for help and possessed with a sense of pride and stubbornness (hence the title; Shi means “Stone”), Shi’s initial act of kindness eventually sours him to the point where he takes drastic, morally irredeemable measures to get himself out of the costly predicament he’s in.

Director/writer Johnny Ma based his debut feature on an actual incident that mirrors the events in the film.  He brings a strong sense of neorealism to the proceedings and takes you into Shi’s world at the ground level, one of constant noise—horns consistently bleat. Wires crisscross the sky, occasionally bellowing down to hang desultorily in front of a window of the rows of buildings that make up this forlorn chaotic city. Shi wanders through it practically shell shocked. Even his home is filled with bawling children as his wife (Nai An) runs a nursery out of it. He finds not a moment’s peace.

Actor Gang Chen is a real find. His weathered face expresses innocence and bewilderment, yet there is tensile steel that is present, a sense of determination. This combination allows you to empathize with him even as he starts to behave in ways that we would consider, let’s say, unwise.

Interspersed throughout, almost as chapter dividers, are shots of a forest, filmed from above. Brilliantly green leaves sway in the wind that’s blowing loud enough you can hear it whistle through the tree branches. These are the only moments in nature, which bring some sense of relief through the chaos and the devilish building of tension. Unfortunately, this turns out not so much as a respite but foreshadowing as this forest makes an appearance at the end and we realize by then that there is no escaping the tragedy to come.

Old Stone is a stinging indictment of the bureaucracy that encourages apathy and engenders callousness. A tightly wound gem of a movie, it’s highly recommended.

Written and Directed by Johnny Ma
Released by Zeitgeist Films
China/Canada. 80 min. Not rated
With Gang Chen, Nai An, Hongwei Wang, Zebin Zhang,  and Xu’er Luo