Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Dec 01, 2016 10:46 am 
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GANG CHEN IN OLD STONE/LAO SHI

No place for good guys in contemporary China

"No good deed goes unpunished in this vision of contemporary China, a dog-eat-dog world in which the strong don’t just consume the weak, they also suck the marrow out of every last bone." (Manohla Dargis, New York Times.)

First time director Johnny Ma is having fun, if that's the word, with a grim, fast-paced tale whose opening half could almost have come from Rossellini or De Sica. Its everyman protagonist Lao Shi (Gang Chen) is a cab driver who saves Li Jiang (Zebin Zhang), the motorcyclist he's run over, only to suffer a series of financial and personal consequences. As the film hints at the outset, drivers often run over people they've hit repeatedly to kill them, because according to the Draconian Chinese system the financial penalty for that is finite, but if the victim lives, they're liable for care, indefinitely. Most advisable is hit-and-run, since there's apparently no system to analyze and determine fault.

These are the relevant technicalities, but Ma's chief concern is the pure rush of events as the poor cabbie runs around trying to do the right thing and growing increasingly desperate. The viewer may enjoy the fast pace, and gritty-beautiful cinematography by Leung Ming-kai sometimes reminiscent of Chris Doyle's early work for Wong Kar-wai; or, given the motorcycles,Tsai Ming-liang's debut classic Rebels of the Neon God. This however is no dreamy teenage world; it has instead the relentlessly downbeat mood of Italian neorealism. Big catch though: this is modern China. TVs natter on everywhere. The world is rife with poverty, greed, and opportunity, and the story takes on a bitter irony.

Everyone is against Lao Shi, the cab company, the insurance company, the police, even his drinking buddies upbraid him for not following bureaucratic procedures. His wife Mao Mao (Nai An, the film’s executive producer), whom he at first dares not even tell, is saving up to expand her babysitting business into a nursery, and is furious and withdraws all the money when she sees their bank account going down (to pay hospital bills for Li Jiang, who remains in a coma after surgery). More than that, overheard or glimpsed events show the Chinese system favors brutality and dishonesty and has not an ounce of kindness in it. The well-off passenger who was drunk and grabbed Lao Shi's arm, causing the accident, not surprisingly won't agree to make a statement to police admitting his involvement.

Ma also owes a debt to Jia Zhang-ke for the way he weaves soulless urban rituals of aerobics, kitsch posh hotels, and other scenes of contemporary China into the action compounding his increasingly battered protagonist's sense of confusion and alienation. As the action speeds along tension is heightened by the way Lao Shi seems part investigator, part predator.

Mike Long, Daniel Garcia, with Lee Sanders, music supervisor, are responsible for a cool, increasingly ominous percussive score as neorealism morphs into neo-noir. Ma also weaves in periodic glimpses of velvety forest as haunting, dreamlike punctuation and foreshadowing in this carefully structured little film whose finale seems to owe something to the Coen brothers' debut.

Shanghai-born Johnny Ma (Nan Ma) migrated to Chanda at age ten, later got an MFA at Columbia in directing and screenwriting. He now divides his time between China and Vancouver.

Old Stone /老石 (Lao shi), 80 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2016; 11 other festival showings including Hongkong, Toronto and Stockholm. US theatrical release 30 Nov. 2016 (IFC Center NYC; Landmark SF Bay Area). Metacritic rating 66%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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