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.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena