Third Cinema revisited

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Old Stone / Lao shi, Canada/China 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 20, 2016

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The English title of the film suggests its theme indirectly: ‘old’ as in traditional and ‘stone’ as resistant to marking. The Chinese title is the name of the main character (Gang Chen), a taxi driver in a provincial Chinese city. The basic plot involves him in an accident that results in the victim, a motor cyclist, being taken to hospital and subsequently needing long term treatment. The situation now is that medical care in China requires medical insurance, rather like the USA model. Because of this there are accepted ‘procedures’ following accidents: these define who is liable for the costs. So, Lao shi, instead of waiting for police and an ambulance, takes the severely injured man in his taxi to the hospital. He then finds himself liable for the charges. The key moment show shim at the cashier window with  staff demanding payment before the life-saving operation can begin. And there is a queue of people behind Lao shi, presumably facing similar demands.

His actions create problems with his employers and with the insurance company who cover the firm. It also causes problems with the police: in the latter case this results in an interminable wait for an accident report. But the most serious conflict is with Lao shi’s wife, a budding entrepreneur who runs a nursery. The nursery operates on minimal resources but the wife is hoping to expand. As Lao shi continues paying for the hospital charges she emptier their joint account to preserve their savings.

Lao shi fares no better with the family of the injured man. He has come to the city from the countryside. Lao shi’s repeated phone calls to them only engender claims that they have no money to pay for the charges. Thus we follow Lao shi as he is caught in a vicious circle of payments with no assistance.

Matters come to a head when the victim is finally discharged from hospital and Lao shi realises that he is deliberately maintaining ailments so that Lao shi’s contributions to medical bills will continue. Lao shi now changes gear and sets out to end his involvement through either an ‘accident’ or murder. Predictably it is Lao shi, the victim hero, who in the end suffers an ‘accidental’ death.

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This is a bleak tale which emphasises the alienation of ordinary Chinese citizen in their market driven economy. The filmmaker was inspired by tales of actual deaths caused in order to avoid the type of situation that afflicts Lao shi. There is one telling scene where Lao shi witnesses an older woman who collapses in the street, but no passer-by will assist her because of the fear of the very situation in which Lao shi find himself.

The film has a noir quality. The story is told in flashback, we open with a sequence where Lao shi is following the now discharged victim, and the film recurrently cuts between that present and the past events. Much of the film is show in an observational, almost documentary, style. Many sequences also have a grainy look which contributes to the downbeat feeling. The film has a compressed plot and is tightly edited, coming in at only 80 minutes running time. The downbeat often low-key look has one exception. A recurring shot, quite lush, of green billowing tress. These rise above the setting where the final events play out.

With the noir feel and the sense of large-scale alienation the film is reminiscent of some other Chinese drams-cum-thrillers. In particular I was reminded of Blind Shaft (2003) set among the illegal coal mining workers: and The World (2004) set in a Theme Park in Beijing. In all three cases ordinary working people suffer the cost of China’s developing capitalist economy. Several of the reviews of this film refer to ‘a taxi driver battling bureaucracy’. And this is one aspect of the process we witness. But the main force is the drive to force ordinary Chinese people to pay the costs of the social care that the capitalist forces no longer meet. This is where the theme of ‘old’ or ‘tradition’ is important. Whatever the failings of China’s Socialist Construction things are far worse now that profit is in control.

The writer and director, Jonny Ma, is Chinese-Canadian and this is a China/Canada production. His other film, The Robbery (2010), was set in Australia. So this is an example of the developing global film industry and of Diaspora filmmaking. The film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival and, to date, it seems to have only enjoyed screenings at other Film Festivals. That also is typical of his type of film product. But it deserves to get wider releases and distribution.

 

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