Old Stone finds drama and violence from society’s inhumanity

B Drama turned thriller
Written and directed by Johnny Ma

Intended as a critique of Chinese society, Johnny Ma’s first feature shows us a man economically trapped for committing a good deed. But Old Stone loses its way in the third act, when it shifts from serious social drama to attempted thriller.

In the confusing aftermath of a traffic accident, a taxi driver (Chen Gang) makes a crucial decision that saves the life of the man his cab hit. When the ambulance failed to materialize, the cabbie drove the unconscious victim to the hospital. The doctor assured him that in doing so, he saved a man’s life.

But that’s not how the cab company sees it–or the insurance agency. By not calling his employer first and then waiting for the ambulance, the taxi driver broke protocol. He’s now personally liable for the victim’s medical expenses. (“Communist” China apparently doesn’t have universal healthcare.)

The accident wasn’t entirely the cabbie’s fault; a drunk passenger grabbed the driver’s arm and forced the car to swerve. But everyone insists that the cabbie take all of the responsibility. He loses his job. His savings dwindle until his wife takes what’s left to protect herself and their daughter. The accident victim is in a coma, and the hospital bills pile up.

The driver takes to wandering through the city, often drunk. Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung uses long lenses to emphasize both the crowding of the city and the protagonist’s emotional isolation. Ma paints modern urban China as a place where people only connect at a superficial level. When the cabbie falls down a long staircase, witnesses just stare. People constantly give each other cigarettes to break the near-impenetrable social ice.

In the final act, desperation drives the taxi driver toward murder. After all, if the patient dies, the hospital bills stop. And after nearly an hour of excellent cinema, the film falters. Certainly the cabbie must realize that if the patient dies, the man forced by law to pay the medical bills will be the number one suspect. Worse, this situation provides an excuse to end the film with a badly-staged, poorly-motivated, and confusing action sequence where the audience has no rooting interest.

Old Stone takes a serious look at the price of humane behavior in an inhumane society. But the ending is all wrong.