OLD STONE, drama, not rated, in Mandarin with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
In the Bible, there’s the story of the Good Samaritan, a passerby who takes pity on a man who’s been beaten and left for dead. “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”
(Luke 10:33–34) These days, he’d have a lawsuit on his hands. In this bleak tale from Johnny Ma, a thirty-five-year-old Chinese-Canadian veteran of the fashion and finance worlds who makes his feature film directorial debut here, helping an injured stranger is the first step on the slippery downhill road to ruin.
When the title character, a lean, grizzled cab driver named Lao Shi (Chen Gang), swerves into a motorcyclist on a crowded city street in an unnamed Chinese city, he stays to help. The accident wasn’t his fault; his drunken passenger had grabbed his arm, and then left in another cab after the crash. But the victim is badly hurt, and police and ambulance help is excruciatingly slow to arrive. Lao Shi loads the man into his taxi and takes him to the hospital.
Big mistake. In China these days, the canny driver who hits a pedestrian then backs up and runs him over a few more times to make sure he’s dead. We hear a news report of such a story on Lao Shi’s cab radio in an opening scene. According to a 2015 article in Slate, this practice has gained enough currency to have entered the language as an adage: “It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure.”
The online fact-checking website Snopes calls this charge “unproven,” but Ma draws on it to build a dark and cautionary tale. Lao Shi finds himself liable for the hospital bills of the victim, who remains in an extended coma. His insurance company turns a cold shoulder. So do his boss and his wife. The victim’s family gets in touch, and hits him up for more money. The guy was not a nice person, they tell him. It would be best if he died, so they could collect the insurance money.
Lao Shi grows increasingly disillusioned, bitter, and desperate. Chen conveys the hopelessness and torment of his situation with a grim panache worthy of a John Garfield noir. Most of the story is told in a three-month flashback to the accident; in the present, we see Lao Shi following a man on a motorcycle through traffic, and in the tortuous third act, we find out why.
Ma cuts periodically to a shot of evergreens in a forest, their densely packed tops swaying in the wind. This could stand for onlookers in an impersonal, uncaring world. It takes on a more practical employment as the setting for the grim finish.
Driver beware: Chen Gang