Film Review: Old Stone (Johnny Ma)

by Jason Suzuki

In essence the question at the heart of a film noir is "What is right?" So while Johnny Ma's debut film might not have the detectives and femme fatales or the Los Angeles setting, trading the stylish chiaroscuro for the realism of modern day China, that thin line between right and wrong, and the sad reality that doing good is not the societal norm, is at the heart of this modest story. The most conventionally pulpy it gets are the red lights that bathe our protagonist as he sits in his car, waiting for the motorist he is tailing to get back on the road, foreshadowing the moral turn that couldn't be avoided. 

When taxi driver Lao Shi (Chen Gang) is involved in a car accident, striking a motorist with his car. He chooses not to run but is already calling it in when we meet him, as a crowd gathers around the body of the motorcyclist struck. Already we know he wants to do what is right no matter how uncomfortable a situation he gets himself in. Things start getting hard for Shi when the crowd convinces him that there is no time to wait for the ambulance, the only way the victim will survive is if he picks him up and puts him in his cab.

Once in the hospital it's a parade of police, insurance companies, hospital bills, family responsibility, and impending debt. The day of the accident Shi doesn't even tell his wife about what happened, let alone the hospital bills he is now paying on behalf of the man he put in a coma. Once she finds out there will be hell to pay, just another nagging voice telling Shi how he should have handled the car accident: hit-and-run.

Periodically the film will return to that opening image of Shi sitting in his idling car, awash in the reds of traffic lights, the first time something tells him to stop. The film knows by revealing his ethical shift it needs to hurry to get there as it beats down on its protagonist again and again. We can't fault Shi for how things turn out but just as with film noir while we as a society might favor unethical behavior, the way the world works does not reward that way of life for very long.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.