RATING |

What would you do if you hit someone with your car?

Lao Shi (Chen Gang), the hapless hero Old Stone, does the right thing: He tries to help the victim. And he ends up paying dearly for it.

Old Stone is the remarkable feature debut from Chinese Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma, whose 2013 short A Grand Canal was named one of the best of that year at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Lean, mean, and utterly compelling, Ma's beautifully paced and remarkably understated 80-minute thriller Old Stone is a Kafkaesque satire about the soul-crushing effects of bureaucracy.

After the accident, Shi commits a capital error. He acts like a caring, feeling person instead of standing back and letting the accident machinery – cops, paramedics, doctors, lawyers, insurance companies – process the victim.

When an ambulance fails to materialize, Shi drives the unconscious man to the emergency room in his cab. When the hospital asks for payment information, he happily volunteers his own bank card.

Over the next several days, he'll be asked to produce that card with frightening regularity to pay for an escalating series of fees. When the victim, Li Jiang (Zhang Zebin) falls into a coma, the days become weeks, then months.

Shi keeps the receipts, hoping he'll be reimbursed by Jiang's family or insurance company. But it's obvious from the start he's far more invested in making sure Jiang will recover.

At every turn, Ma's taxi driver behaves in the most selfless, giving, and trusting manner one can imagine. He's a true altruist. A saint.

Or he's a gullible, unsophisticated fool.

That's his wife's opinion. Mao Mao (Nai An), who runs a daycare center out of the couple's home, freezes their bank account and kicks him out.

What does Shi do? He goes to loan sharks so he can continue to pay Jiang's hospital bills.

Ma skillfully portrays the pressure, the anger, the depression that eventually builds up in Shi, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Old Stone is a gripping account of an alienated culture where people no longer have an intrinsic connection to one another. It's set it modern China, but I think Ma's intent is to critique modern urban life more generally.

The movie's urban culture is a cold one, where people no longer have an intrinsic connection to one another. The bonds have been replaced by rules, codes, and regulations that absolve everyone from dealing directly with their neighbors. In this world, the correct response to a person in need is to turn away.