The humane and the procedural
In Johnny Ma’s debut feature, long-time taxi driver Lao Ma (Chen Gang) – known commonly as ‘Lao Shi’ (‘old stone’) – is both a witness and active social actor in the hard reality of a bustling anonymous Chinese city. He and his wife Mao Mao (Nai An) work hard to maintain, and even aspire to overcome, their (lower) middle class status; she managing a nursery in their own home while looking for space to buy/rent to have a proper one, and he taxi driving. They also deal with their growing adolescent daughter Xue’er (Luo Xue’er): helping with her homework, withholding her cellphone as a form of discipline so that she can improve her grades, and bearing with her small rebellious jabs at their parental authority. Ma captures both Shi’s family and the city’s habitual reality in an immersive documentary style, through which the glaring sounds of busy traffic, construction, clumps of ambling pedestrians, and the cries and voices of the children in Mao Mao’s nursery, among other things, clamour for the spectator’s attention in a strikingly disorientating way.
Yet in marked contrast with such quotidian reality are the film’s opening shots: stunning atmospheric views of treetops softly swaying and rendered a deeper green due to the grey clouds, rain, lightning, and thunder that loom over them. These shots then cut to the city, specifically to Lao Shi inside a car, while a news broadcast is heard reporting of a car accident in which the driver runs over his victim a second time. Lao Shi is in fact tailing a man on a scooter making deliveries. Though removed from the city and seemingly registering a reality different from that of Lao Shi’s routine, the film’s opening shots – with their eerie tone – are actually part and parcel of the everyday. Through Lao Shi’s experiences, the film presents a fascinating and unsettling commingling of, on the one hand, the ordinary and everyday world of the city in which the characters live and, on the other hand hand, the nightmarish and i/llogical world of procedure that partly provokes Lao Shi losing control of what is happening to him following an accident (distinct from the one heard in the news broadcast).
Bridging these two worlds of the ordinary everyday and nightmarish il/logicality, and incrementally revealing the connection between Lao Shi and the man whom he is tailing, are flashbacks. The first flashback, shown early in the film, presents Lao Shi’s accident that occurred three months ago. While driving a drunken passenger in his taxi, Lao Shi hits a man who is left bloodied and unconscious on the ground. Instead of following procedure by waiting for the police and/or ambulance to arrive, he brings the injured man to the hospital so that he could be taken care of immediately. And, indeed, the doctor tells him that, fortunately, Lao Shi brought the injured man to the hospital in time. Unfortunately for Lao Shi, acting on behalf of the victim’s wellbeing instead of following procedure proves to be complicated for the insurance company to compensate for the hospital expenses, which he has been partly coerced to pay out of his own pocket thus far. As the expenses continue to pile up, even after the injured man emerges from his coma later in the film; the processing of the police report of the accident is bureacratically held up; and Lao Shi tries to extricate himself from this unintended financial responsibility, the more he sinks into a quagmire. In the process, he and the film peel away the innocuous veneer of the everyday to reveal the macabre that pits the humane against the procedural.
The informal, ‘impractical,’ and ‘illogical’
Filmmaker Johnny Ma recounts what brought him to this particular subject and character of Lao Shi: ‘a newspaper article I read, about a truck driver who had hit a farmer in the middle of the mountain. The farmer was not dead but seriously injured. When the truck driver saw that no one had been there to witness the accident, he got back into his truck, backed up, and killed the injured farmer. Eventually, when the police found out the truth and asked why the truck driver did what he did, the man explained that it would’ve been worse for him if the farmer had stayed alive.’ Such a real-life incident, paired with Ma’s previous filmmaking experience, thus accounts for the film’s documentary realism of Lao Shi’s immediate world: ‘I come from a documentary background and I value authenticity above all else. To me, if I don’t believe the actor could exist in the world that I place him, I cannot believe the film.’ At the same time, this documentary realism is tempered with subtle otherworldliness that crystallises through/in Lao Shi’s experiences, arguably drawn from Ma’s reaction to the newspaper article: ‘I was shaken by what this truck driver had said; not because it was extreme, but because I had understood him completely. To me, the truck driver acted practically and logically, with his own family interest in mind. And I felt that if I had the same lot in life as him and was in the situation, there was a chance I may have thought to do the same thing. And that scared me more than anything: that I could’ve been this truck driver capable of murder. So I decided then and there [that] this was something worthwhile to express in a film, to remind myself [of] the person that I could become if I am not careful. I wanted to create the ultimate “good” person, a character who would not act “practically” and “logically” as the truck driver and see how this man would survive in our current modern society, and this character became Lao Shi.’
In addition to the film’s use of flashbacks that bring it to film noir territory is Lao Shi’s informal, ‘impractical,’ and ‘illogical’ attempts to expedite and resolve his case on his own — contrary to waiting it out, as procedure would have it. Like a poor man’s Philip Marlowe, Lao Shi tails the man on the scooter and looks for the drunken passenger also connected to the accident. In the process, the indifferent, ordinary everyday that he had only known gives way to a disturbing one in which people are more than willing to give their opinions if there is no risk of getting involved — such as the crowd surrounding the injured man and Lao Shi after the accident, or the group of people who gather around a traffic guard who has fainted on the street on a separate occasion — yet scurry away when someone attempts to get them involved for the sake of helping him/her out or simply whip out cellphones to record and keep reality at a remove in the face of violence. As a mark of this shift born from Lao Shi’s ‘good samaritan’ intentions, he ‘illogically’ and ‘impractically’ becomes estranged from his family due to him paying more attention to the injured man, such as staying vigilantly at the hospital while the latter is in a coma, the two creating a kind of surrogate family.
The specific and the universal
Ma relates, ‘I was very aware of the fact that this issue of the “good samaritan” was a sensitive issue in China, especially as many cases [have] been reported of people faking [an] accident in order to extort drivers, and good samaritans have caused a new society norm in which, when an accident happens, the first rule of engagement is to not get involved or to help.’ At the same time, Ma was also very aware of the potential drawback of the specificity of the story’s setting: ‘I knew that if I made the film in China, that “China” alone would be the thing people would respond to, and criticize China and countries like it for being the only places where such events can happen.’ As such, initially the story was set in the United States, specifically Detroit, for Ma ‘was much more interested in express[ing] this [phenomenon] as a scenario that could happen anywhere in the world, to different degrees. I had loved the way Jim Jarmusch depicted the world of Detroit in his film Only Lovers Left Alive and I felt it was the perfect setting for the film to show the universality of this subject.’
What prompted the change in setting was ultimately the practical reason of funding. Yet, as Ma found, mounting an independent film production proved to be ‘ten times harder in China than, let’s say, US or Canada or European country.’ He details, ‘Jia Zhangke once said, “When you are an independent filmmaker in China, you cast a very lonely shadow.” I feel he is more right, now than ever. There are things such as the Chinese censorship process that no filmmaker should ever have to deal with, and making a first feature is hard enough to have those extra burdens on your shoulder. But definitely, to me, the hardest thing for me and my collaborator in the entire process is to have what it feels like the entire Chinese film industry (aside from a few believers) against you and making fun of you as if we were idiots for wanting to pursue something that is different.’
Though few in number, Ma’s believers ended up including very established figures in the Chinese independent filmmaking scene. One such ‘believer’ is producer and actress Nai An, whose role as the former has been more prolific, specifically for famed independent filmmaker Lou Ye. Nai fulfills precisely the dual role of producer and actress in Old Stone. Another such believer is actor Wang Hongwei, best known for his collaborations with Jia Zhangke and who plays one of Lao Shi’s colleagues in the film.
The professional and the non-professional
Another significant ‘believer’ in terms of the end result is lead actor Chen Gang, whose character interacts closely with Nai and Wang’s characters. Practically in every scene, Chen’s performance stitches together the film’s disparate aspects — documentary and fiction, the ordinary and the grotesque, and film noir elements — and therefore carries the principal burden of narrative authenticity. ‘Once I cast Chen Gang in the lead role,’ Ma elaborates, ‘I had to surround him with other actors who had the same screen presence that could act alongside [him], who just had the most extraordinary screen presence.’ In response, Ma constantly captures Chen in close-ups and tight framing in the film, oftentimes without or in lieu of dialogue. Chen’s eyes alone convey multiple emotional hues and draws in the spectator; as Lao Shi sinks deeper into the quagmire following his accident and is eventually pushed to act against his better judgment, they express an unforgettable mixture of curiosity, disbelief, concern, and world-weariness.
Interestingly enough, Ma took a rather circuitous route to arrive at casting Chen as Lao Shi. He says, ‘There were a list of few very good male actors I had wanted to cast, but the current problems of high salaries dealing with actors and agents in the Chinese film industry kept me from even being able to get my script to them. I was so far down the list of what the agents would consider for their clients; no matter how much I tell them this was a good script, no one would even read the script.’ But Chen was not on such a list, and Ma ‘actually didn’t have him in mind.’ Given Chen’s magnetic presence and performance in the film, it is surprising to find that ‘he is a relatively unknown actor in China,’ Ma shares, ‘who primarily works in television with a few supporting roles in movies. I had seen him in some small roles where he was really wonderful.’ Even more surprising is the fact that by the time Chen came under Ma’s radar, he had already retired from acting. And even before coaxing him out of retirement, Ma had to first, well, find him. ‘To be honest, no one knew how to find him; this is how badly structured the casting situation [is] in China,’ according to Ma. ‘Finally, about ten days before we were planning to begin production, I was able to get in touch with him. And because he had a fear of flying, I had to cast him directly on the basis of two Skype phone calls. I had to trust my instincts to risk losing the entire film. And I went with my gut instinct that he was the right Lao Shi for this project. And to his credit, he treated this project as his retirement film and he gave me everything he had.’
In one very memorable sequence with Chen, the camera first presents a high-angle long shot of a plaza in which people are square dancing to a techno tune. When the camera zooms in on the dancers, one discovers a body whose movements are out of sync with the rest and the beat. Chen as Lao Shi is walking through the dancers, while intermittently participating in the exercise and chugging at a beer bottle in hand. The sequence marks an important shift in Lao Shi’s informal investigation of his own case, but it is also notable for several reasons: one, it showcases exactly Ma’s penchant for documentary authenticity and the film’s cast of professional and non-professional actors; two, it also showcases the film’s blending of documentary otherworldliness, particularly when the diegetic techno song gives way to haunting extra-diegetic sounds that aurally zoom in on Lao Shi’s frazzled subjectivity at this point in time; and three, it literally gives Chen a platform in which to demonstrate an aspect of the full-bodied performance that he was able to give to Ma.
The present and the future
Ma concludes, ’Because of Chen Gang, the film works, and he deserves every praise for his performance.’
And as far as future projects are concerned, Ma states, ‘China is where I feel most inspired right now as a creative voice, and I hope to continue to make films here about the stories that I believe in. Now that we did it once and [have] proved ourselves, our “family” of collaborators grows bigger, and hopefully others in the Chinese industry will also be inspired by it and do the projects they believe in rather than just going with the industry flow.’