“Old Stone” opens—and closes—on a screen flooded with brilliant red. Is this a foretaste of the madness, the folly, which will follow as we drive out into the dark streets of a small, corrupt Chinese town where, habitually, cars and trucks run down citizens in the street and kill them rather than accept responsibility? Even more ominous is the repeated shot from above of a dark, lush, green forest waving like the ocean in a storm. It is as if nature was a Greek chorus commenting on the evil before our eyes.
The director-screenwriter Johnny Ma, who was born in Shanghai but raised in Toronto and educated at Columbia University, tells us that a few years ago he overheard a story about a truck driver who hit a man in the middle of the night. Rather than call for help, he drove back over the man to kill him lest he be required to pay the man’s hospital bills. If he had died the law would require only a one-time fee to the family for compensation.
So “Old Stone” (the translation of the main character’s name) gives us a hard-working cab driver, Lao Shi (Chen Gang). One night, Shi is driving a drunken man when a motorcyclist blocks their path. The drunk grabs Shi’s arm while he is driving, forcing him to swerve and hit the cyclist. A crowd forms, and Shi, in spite of the bystanders’ advice, picks up the unconscious victim and rushes him to the hospital. Morally, he is doing the right thing; legally, he must now pay the medical bills of this man as long as the victim lives.
The film is the story of his undoing. The insurance companies won’t reimburse him. His wife, who runs a nursery, takes him to a lawyer who is too busy to listen. In the film’s most pitiful and memorable scene, Shi tracks down the drunk passenger who had grabbed his arm and caused him to hit the cyclist. The culprit brushes him off, but Shi pursues him into a crowded hotel wedding reception. There the wedding security heave him tumbling down a long stairway. As he lies stunned he looks up in a plea for help, but the balcony above is lined with wedding guests staring down, all tapping away at their cell-phones. He loses the support of his wife and his boss and associates, who hold him responsible for what they consider irresponsible selfishness.
Step by step the city’s mindless citizens chip away at his integrity. His savings are stripped away. He spends his nights driving, lighting one cigarette after another and swigging whiskey. The hissing, screeching and discordant music of the city plays as a storm eats away at his soul. Ma tells us that “for a long time in our society, it is harder and harder for people to do good deeds. Everyone looks after their own interest first before considering anyone else.”
Shi has virtually moved into his victim’s hospital room where the man lies in a coma connected to a complex of wires and machines that keep him alive. Shi has been driven into poverty. The viewer is forced to ask the unthinkable. Will he pull the plug? All things considered, is he responsible for his behavior? “Old Stone” is one of the most morally challenging films in years, a critique not of Chinese communism, but of what one critic describes as “China’s dog-eat-dog capitalist system.” Its theme rings true for the United States as well as any country where empathy is undermined by its competitive culture. The climax is horrible, but not a total surprise.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is America’s books editor.