Tuesday, November 29, 2016

China laid bare (once again) in Johnny Ma's stinging do-the-right-thing movie, OLD STONE

Making the correct choice -- as best you can determine, at least -- is given quite the workout in a new Chinese-Canadian movie that starts off like a heavy-duty social-justice melodrama before turning into a very weird kind of revenge (against society) quasi-thriller. That OLD STONE, written and directed by first-timer Johnny Ma (shown below), works as well as it does is due in large part to the quietly riveting performance from its lead actor, Chen Gang (shown on poster, left, and further below), who brings such self-effacing honesty and troubling kindness to his role of protagonist, that he will keep you hooked through some very odd twists and turns, a little sentimentality and a full-out character descent into... well, you'll see.

Mr. Ma, born in China but raised from age ten in Canada, offers up past, present, and even a little future in his film, which tells its story of enormous social injustice via his leading character: a not especially smart but essentially decent and honorable taxi driver involved in a traffic accident that sends a young motorcyclist to the hospital and our protagonist into the hell-on-earth that is apparently Chinese society today. Those, like myself, unfamiliar with the ins and out of China's health care, policing and insurance systems, will have to take what Ma dishes out as gospel. Given what we, along with our hero, experience here, this is not difficult to do.

Initially, you may imagine that the movie is something akin to the recent Mexican melodrama that indicted that country's horrid health-care/insurance system, A Monster With A Thousand Heads. But, no: it lacks that film's momentum, swift pacing and single-mindedness. Instead Ma goes a bit too heavily for "art," opening with and returning time and again to a view of a forest and its rolling trees.

We learn of the accident (above), along with what led up to this, in small doses, spending time with our taxi driver, his family, his boss, the police, and the hospital, not to mention the comatose victim and his family (the latter via cell phone), and the drunk skunk who actually caused the accident. All of this is woven pretty well into the unfurling scenario, with most of the puzzle pieces fitting together by the time we reach the finale.

Most effective as an indictment of a society that seems every bit as venal, uncaring and incompetent as our hero is caring and kind, the movie actually misses its mark as strong drama mostly by trying a little too hard for the artsy and/or noirish.

But Old Stone is worth seeing as a first step in what might be a productive career for the filmmaker, and especially for the award-calibre performance from the terrific Mr. Chen.

From Zeitgeist Films, in Mandarin with English subtitles, and running a short 81 minutes, the movie opens in New York (at the IFC Center) tomorrow, Wednesday, November 30; in Seattle (at the Grand Illusion Cinema) on December 2; and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts) on December 9. For a look at all the dozen currently-scheduled playdates -- with theaters and cities included -- simply click  here  and then scroll down.

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