Lao Shi (Old Stone), this year’s winner of the FIPRESCI award at the Pacific Meridian festival at Vladivostok, is a debut feature film directed by Johnny Ma and co-produced by Canada and China. Born in China but raised in Canada, Ma’s cosmopolitan identity and cinematic language gives the film a universal quality, which is good for contemporary cinema. It fits into the context of a festival with global reach and has potential for theatrical distribution not just in China but also in the rest of the world.
The film was inspired by a Chinese newspaper report about a truck driver who hit and seriously injured a farmworker on a mountain road and had to make a practical decision about how to deal with him. He chose to run over him a second time. Since the incident seemed to suggest that it was better for the victim to die on the spot than to receive immediate aid, the story led to a public debate about the law concerning road accidents, police procedure and compensation issues. This kind of story would be suitable for straightforward social criticism, but Johnny Ma extends his range, adding elements of a tense thriller and a social apocalypse.
In the film, the main character is a middle-class taxi driver in a big Chinese city. After hitting the man, he decides to take him to a hospital for emergency treatment rather than wait for the police to arrive. His good intentions bring problem after problem. The hospital bill is enormous and the injured man’s poor family can’t pay. The insurance company refuses to pay because the police did not report the incident. The police does nothing for bureaucratic reasons. The taxi-driver’s wife stops talking to him because he used up all their savings.
Johnny Ma creates a Kafkaesque world in which a good man is powerless to overcome the obstacles. Ma impressively portrays street scenes in which the public is in a constant rush to make easy money. The television news watched by the taxi-driver is full of disasters, next to which the taxi-driver’s misfortunes are just a banal statistic, not sensational enough to make it into the news.
Starting from social criticism in a realistic style, Johnny Ma switches genre in mid-film when the taxi-driver, previously powerless, takes matters into his own hands. Ma does not think in binary terms of good and bad, black and white, but develops a complex, Dostoevskian vision of man’s soul. He shows how life is cheap in modern China, despite the economic miracle. Everyone is at risk of sudden loss through accident, and of becoming a loser-monster.
The powerful ending, in which (spoiler alert!) the taxi driver tries to kill the man whose life he did so much to save, is as dynamic as anything directed by Kurosawa or Spielberg. Ma’s Canadian background gives him distance from the Chinese world, and this enables him to mix genres and achieve a more critical perspective on the Chinese modern miracle. The frenetic quest for success leads to a loss of humanity. In metaphoric terms, Johnny Ma sees China as a speeding machine that will run over new victims.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2016