Short Take: Old Stone

(Johnny Ma, China/Canada, Zeitgeist Films, Opening November 30)

Where better to shoot a neo-noir than a nation of 350 million smokers? Old Stone’s first glimpse of Chinese cabbie Lao Shi, waiting in the driver’s seat while smoke curls around his face, foreshadows the stylized fatalism of a film with its eye trained, at least initially, on the bottom line.

Distracted by a drunk passenger, Shi (Chen Gang) strikes a scooter driver but saves the victim’s life by driving him to the hospital with the ambulance nowhere in sight. After his own passenger flees, he’s stuck with the comatose victim’s medical bills and left to flail amid bureaucratic indifference from police, hospital, and insurance company (while guiltily keeping his wife in the dark for as long as possible).

The debut feature from the Shanghai-born, Toronto-raised New Yorker Johnny Ma, Old Stone begins in a ticking-clock neorealist vein, funneling the anxiety and abnegation of the day-to-day cash-flow hustle into the desperation of a thriller. But Ma doesn’t always follow the money with the rigor of a walls-closing-in social drama: in interviews, he admits to nudging the script into overt crime drama to attract Chinese investors and market share as well as subtitled festival-circuit play. Old Stone’s gradual pitch-shift is signaled by Leung Ming-kai’s cinematography, which trades long-lens urban smog for headlights and noodle-shop neon. The whole film ends in a beautifully orchestrated illustration of zero-sum socioeconomics and tragi-cosmic caprice.