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November 11, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Old Stone

old stone poster.jpg

Lao Shi
Johnny Ma - 2016
Zeitgeist Films

There is a repeated visual motif in Old Stone of overhead shots of a bamboo forest, the trees rustling in the wind. Bamboo usually symbolizes the concept of simplicity and of life moving in a straight-forward fashion. For the taxi driver, Shi, nothing is simple or straight-forward after he accidentally hits a young man on a motorcycle. The title translates as "too honest" or "naive" in addition to the literal meaning. Like a heavy stone, Shi's honesty, and his belief in the honesty of other people turns out to be a burden that is his undoing.

Away from the glitter of Beijing or Shanghai, the Chinese-Canadian Ma's debut feature was filmed in Guangde County, land-locked, and generally shabby. Some of the writing about Old Stone discusses the film in terms of film noir, but I think the film is spiritually closer to film noir's antecedent, neo-realism. While marginally better off that Vittorio De Sica's Antonio, Shi is similar as a guy whose faith in other people gets shattered while trying to do the right thing, while Ma indirectly comments on class and bureaucracy in within a small city.

The story was inspired by a true event in which a young girl was the victim of a hit and run van driver, who was run over a second time by the driver, and then a third time by yet another vehicle. Essentially, it is less expensive to provide the victim's family with a one-time payment, than to be saddled with the hospital bills of a survivor. After calling for an ambulance, Shi is surrounded by a crowd, half telling him to wait for the police to arrive, the other half encouraging Shi to take the injured man to a nearby hospital. Shi takes the man to the hospital, with the surgeon informing Shi that the man's life was saved in the nick of time. What follows is trouble after trouble due to Shi's failure to follow the protocols of the police and an insurance company. The injured man, Li Jiang, is in a coma for several months, with Shi taking responsibility for those expenses.

In interviews, Johnny Ma has discussed how he had trouble setting up financing for Old Stone until he presented the film in genre terms. It is significant that the executive producer, is Nai An, who also plays the part of Shi's wife, Mao Mao. As a producer, Nai An has been associated with filmmaker Lou Ye, whose films such as Suzhou River and the generically titled Mystery have incorporated thriller elements. Currently making the rounds of several film festivals, Old Stone marks the return of Johnny Ma to the Denver Film Festival, where his short film, A Grand Canal was the winning student film in 2014.

Posted by peter at November 11, 2016 07:22 AM