Wednesday, 21 September 2016

OLD STONE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - To be good, to be honest . . . to a fault.

Is there any actor alive who looks cooler than
Chen Gang when he's got a cigarette dangling from his lips?

Old Stone (2016)
Dir. Johnny Ma
Starring: Chen Gang

Review by Greg Klymkiw

In China, it is better to let someone die in the street. If you try to help someone, to save the person's life, Chinese law places the responsibility and burden upon you - you become little more than criminalized and in fact, become a victim; a victim, that is, if you let the system screw you over.

In Johnny Ma's extraordinary first feature film Old Stone, Lao Shi (Chen Gang) is a cab driver who accidentally hits a motorcyclist in the street and soon realizes he should not have bothered to stop and most certainly not bothered to help. Because of China's idiotic laws, his life becomes a nightmare: his job is in jeopardy, his finances are drained and his family, by extension, are placed in peril, financially and emotionally.

Even when Chen Gang does not have a smoke
dangling from his lips, he is still the coolest,
no matter what or how he is smoking a cigarette.

Still, it's not just the laws and bureaucracy that contribute to Lao Shi's woes. His need to help escalates to such obsessive degrees that he stands to lose much more than money. One begins to question his mental well-being as he madly, zealously and single-mindedly cares for the accident victim, who lies, deeply comatose in a hospital bed. The over-caring cabbie even begins to investigate the man's life and those who are closest to him.

Lao Shi's sense of responsibility becomes a flaw, a potentially fatal flaw (in more ways than in just the literary sense). Writer-Director Johnny Ma weaves a compulsive tale of a man caught up in a ludicrous bureaucracy which not only mounts, but does so well beyond the usual "through no fault of his own".

The film is framed via flashbacks and flash-forwards which eventually catch up to the central narrative. At first they involve the accident itself, but also several mysterious sequences wherein Lao Shi is following/stalking the motorcycle rider once the "victim" comes out of his coma and is released from hospital.

The movie is engorged with suspense and induces considerable anxiety in the viewer. That it slowly mounts to a chilling series of events which inspires a kind of horror and revulsion in us, not only speaks to the power of the picture, but Johnny Ma as a filmmaker with talent to burn.

One of the things I questioned in terms of the film's structure was the framing device that eventually meets up with the central narrative. I can't actually quarrel with its effectiveness, but at certain points while watching the movie and certainly in retrospect, I kept trying to imagine a movie that stripped this away and presented the whole thing in a straight-up linear fashion. Given the nature of the story and character, my feeling is that "straight-up" might actually have proven to be a lot more "unexpected" than its filmmaker might have imagined (if, in fact, the notion of a more linear approach was even considered, at either the script level or in the cutting room).

This, however, is not a quibble - not even a minor one - it's simply a question; one that only a genuinely intelligent and sophisticated work can inspire.

Even though Chen Gang is not smoking a cigarette
in this shot, we will not hold it against him and proclaim:
Chen Gang is ALWAYS cool!!!

One of the odd feelings the movie instills is sheer frustration - at first with the external forces affecting Lao Shi, but eventually with Lao Shi himself. You keep wanting to slap the guy on the side of the head and yell, "Jesus Christ, dude! Knock it off. Stop caring! Stop allowing yourself to be forcibly face-fucked! Stop obsessing! START being an uncaring prick and move on!"

Of course, if he did any of those things there wouldn't be much of a movie.

What keeps our eyeballs, hearts and minds glued to the screen is the exceptional performance of Chen Gang. He infuses the role with so much humanity, doing so to the point in which we're feeling frustration and anger because he makes us care about Lao Shi so goddamn much. Gang also has charisma to burn. The camera absolutely loves him. I have no idea why this guy isn't a huge star. As far as I can tell, he's only been in one previous feature film (though he's apparently prolific in Chinese TV).

This guy's the real thing. I'd watch him reciting the telephone book.

Plus man-oh-man, he looks so cool smoking cigarettes. This is not an easy thing for anyone to do these days and frankly, any actor who looks as cool as Chen Gang does when he sucks back on cancer sticks, absolutely deserves stardom.


Old Stone is a Zeitgeist Films release playing in the TIFF 2016 Discovery program.