Review

Chinese neo-noir 'Old Stone' spins taxi driver into a bureaucratic nightmare

In the frenzied, cacophanous urban China of Johnny Ma’s stunningly assured, darkly gripping first feature “Old Stone,” a car accident doesn’t just cause physical damage, it wrecks souls.

Taxi driver and family man Lao Shi (a fantastic Chen Gang) learns the hard way the price of compassion when a drunk fare causes him to swerve and hit a motorcyclist, and the impulsively attentive decision to drive the injured man to the hospital — rather than wait for the cops or an ambulance — puts Lao Shi on the hook for his medical bills. (The stinging irony: a dead victim is a one-time payment. But in a coma and recoverable? Ouch.)

Denied help by the indifferent police, his vengeful employer and a heartless insurance company, Lao Shi turns into the central figure of what can best be described as a bureaucracy noir, in which the femme fatale is a modern society that seduces with hustle but cheapens morality. Ma navigates a desperate man’s descent into hazardous problem-solving with real savviness about pacing and sound: the city is always cramped, in motion and practically taunting Lao Shi with its voices, noises and industrial hum.

As “Old Stone” edges into the calculated suspense of a potentially ruinous decision, Ma does his own worrisome swerving, allowing himself stylistic flourishes more befitting the melodrama he’d avoided than the breathless social realism he’d mastered. But it’s a small quibble when the overall stakes are so palpably rendered in this smeary, chilled glimpse at just how punishing the proverbial good deed can be.

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‘Old Stone’

Not rated

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

 

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