Johnny Ma’s Old Stone is a lean, nasty entry in a subgenre that could be termed the bureaucratic noir. As with The Measure of a Man, The Lesson, and other films inspired by the work of Vittorio De Sica and the Dardennes, it mixes vérité camerawork and subtly expressionistic imagery to suggest how unsympathetic social exteriors cripple the interior of a wounded and essentially decent protagonist. The film preaches with biblical bluntness against the hypocritical, purposefully non-human social strictures of insurance companies, hospitals, and various underworld dens, showing them to be similarly obsessed by decorum and financial gain with little allowance for the ambiguity that’s integral to life outside of an application or claims form. Ma tethers this socialist outrage to a classical thriller form, showing how macro callousness begets micro cruelty. Life is cheap in Ma’s China.
Old Stone opens on an image of swaying treetops, their sensually deliberate movement suggesting the undulating of tentacles. Ma returns to this image throughout the film, eventually revealing it to be integral to the climax, the center of his sculptural Rosetta’s stone of vengeance and hopelessness. This forest is the site of a reckoning that awaits Lao Shi (Gang Chen), a taxi driver on the precipice of disaster, whom we first see in sweaty close-up through the windshield of a car as he surveys a motorcyclist leaving a bar. We hear of a traffic accident, which is contrasted with another accident that we see in flashback, in which Shi has hit Li Jiang (Zhang Zebin), who lies convulsing on a street. Circling the scene is a swelling group of spectators who’re quick to lash out at Shi but slow to assist him in getting Jiang help. No wonder: Shi’s decision to take Jiang to the hospital himself—rather than waiting for the non-responsive police or ambulance—dooms him to financial servitude.
Throughout the film, Ma juxtaposes past, present, and future tenses with matter-of-fact finesse, sweeping us up in Shi’s blossoming desperation. The filmmaker’s quicksilver choreography mixes an impression of untethered movement with an emphasis on diamond-hard imagery. The master image of a given scene is usually a close-up of Shi’s face. Noirs are often studies of iconic and masculine faces in crisis, and Chen has a great one, rendering his character an unusual blend of blue-collar tough guy and white-collar patsy. Shi’s visage is forever twisted in photogenic misery, a half-smoked cigarette often dangling from the mouth, engulfing Shi in fumes that embody the blossoming totality of his disarray. Yet there’s also a softness to the face, which Chen uses to mercilessly signal Shi’s emasculated eagerness to please.
Old Stone has a familiar arc, following a man who’s pushed around until he pushes back, embracing the dog-eat-dog nihilism of his fellow humans. The audience is conditioned to anticipate Shi’s decision to kill Jiang, who initially lies comatose in a hospital bed, so as to escape mounting medical debt. Ma turns the screws so tight on Shi—intensifying the frenzied camera oscillations and noir-ish blasts of painterly color, doubling and tripling down on lurid twists of fate—that you may root for Shi’s inevitable turn toward homicide, because his panic is nested in the quotidian of mere domestic survival.
Ma occasionally overreaches, particularly in his predictably unsympathetic portrayal of Shi’s wife and daughter as shrewish extensions of a relentlessly self-obsessed culture, but the filmmaker builds his narrative to a remarkable crescendo that’s reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s underrated remake of Cape Fear. Stripped of dignity, Shi and Jiang are reduced to animals wrestling in swampy mud, trying with frighteningly comic awkwardness to squeeze the life out of the other. Ma vividly proffers this arresting, tangled pose of inhumanity as the logical end result of bureaucratic calculus.