Imagine if you’re driving down the road one day and someone veers into the path of your car and you hit them. Obviously, you’d have insurance that could cover this incident and the victim’s medical expenses.
In the case of Chinese cab driver Lao Shi (Gang Chen) in Johnny Ma’s feature film debut Old Stone, it’s a wealthy, drunken and unruly passenger that causes this accident, but worried the bike messenger he hits won’t survive if they wait for an ambulance, he takes the comatose young man to the hospital himself. This ends up causing problems as his insurance won’t pay the hospital bills and Lao Shi takes it upon himself to help the man, causing him to lose his job and his wife.
Old Stone is a drama that makes you think about our own insurance system and how people end up paying so much money out of pocket even when they have insurance. More importantly, it makes you think about what you might do if ever put into a similar situation yourself.
Ma’s film has been playing at a number of international film festivals over the past year where it’s been very well received. It partially might be that Ma has taken what might have been a rather mundane Chinese drama and instilled it with the type of tension one might find in a Hitchcock thriller.
Festworks had a chance to speak with the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma a few months back about his film, which will debut at the Dallas International Film Festival this coming weekend. We were able to get some interesting insights about the Chinese film industry from someone who considers themselves somewhat of an outsider despite being born in China and has spent many years there.
Festworks: I went into your movie not knowing anything about it, or you. I generally like Asian cinema, but I really enjoyed your movie. I think I read that there was a real hit and run incident that inspired this story. How long ago and where was that?
Johnny Ma: There’s many of these incidents of these things happening, but I think the case that really helped me find my version of the story, to get into this story, is actually the last scene of the film. I read this article—I think the actual incident happened in Taiwan or Thailand, where a truck driver hit a farmer out in the middle of a mountain. He looked around and it was just crickets. There was no one around to see the accident, but the man was hurt badly but not dead and he decided to drive backwards and kill the man. When the police actually figured out what happened and interrogated him, he admitted to the crime, and he explained very practically that it was better if the guy was dead. I think that just shocked me, not because of what he said, but actually, I understood why he did what he did. I think if I was in his same lot in life and in the same situation, I could just hear those crickets, that thought would have gone through my head, and I wondered if I’d do the same thing. That was when I knew I had my in into the story, and I wanted to create this story about a good person, not like us, but someone ultra-good that was doing what no one else was doing and see where that goes. I wanted my audience to get angry and frustrated with him, because to me, that was the whole point, because if the audience judged him, a couple days later, the film stays with them, and they realize, “Hold on. The only thing he was guilty of was that he tried to do a good thing.” That would be the whole problem. It’s not exactly what he did, but the way we’re looking at the situation. The problem is ultimately with us and how society is looking at this particular situation.
Festworks: Is that a common thing in China, that if you injure someone, you have to pay their hospital bills? There’s no auto insurance or insurance as a taxi driver?
Johnny Ma: Yes, there is insurance, but as you can see in the film, I think with all insurance companies and bureaucrats, there’s a process. The corporations are always trying to find loopholes to get out of responsibility. That’s the same way here in the United States as well, I feel. It is something that happens, because he moves the man before the ambulance arrives. That was enough grounds for the insurance company to say, “Maybe you caused these injuries.” But yes, this is a real situation that does happen in China.
The honest truth is that when I first thought about the story, I actually didn’t want to shoot in China. I had originally written the film as an American film that’s set in Detroit with Michael Shannon in mind for the role. For this exact reason, I didn’t want the conversation to just be about, “This happens in China. Why does this happen in China?” that kind of thing. I feel like everywhere, we have set-up systems to help us from taking responsibility. We follow rules and procedures in order to get out of helping. Even here, when we walk past somebody on the ground needing help, usually we would justify that, “Don’t worry, the ambulance is coming,” or “I’ve got somewhere I’ve got to go” or something like that, rather than just taking the time and actually getting your hands dirty to help.
Festworks: You moved to Canada when you were younger, so had you spent enough time in that area of China to get a feel for it? The movie has a slice-of-life aspect where you’re seeing what life is like in that area.
Johnny Ma: Yeah, I was born in Shanghai, and I grew up there till I was age 10, and then I went back to China when I was about 22. I had two different careers in China. I was working in a corporate business, sort of consulting for one of the big mergers and acquisition companies in Shanghai, and then I transferred to work for a joint venture in a small town with a thousand women in a sweatshop eventually. By the time I moved to film, I was working mostly in documentaries, so I do have a process in the way I work, so I usually try to stay in a location where I’m shooting for at least three or four months if I can. I feel like as an outsider, I do have an advantage, in terms of I can see some of the things that somebody from that culture wouldn’t see, but I also have to work much harder than somebody from that culture or from that city. I feel I need to prove to myself that I have the right to make this story and not make it “poverty porn” and do justice to the film. In the end, I’m still making a drama and that helps to be somebody from outside that environment to be able to see the hypocrisy or the injustice of it all.
Festworks: How did you find Gang Chen to play Lao Shi? Were you familiar with his previous work? I understand your two leads are fairly well-known actors there, but maybe not so much here.
Johnny Ma: Actually, he’s not a well-known actor. We had a list of names when we wanted to cast for this film, and the honest truth is that in China right now, the industry is really difficult, especially the actor’s fees, so anybody who is even a little well known was just so out of our price range. It’s not like here where through Sundance or through your agent, if the script is good, you feel like these actors would be willing to take a chance and wanted to be a part of the film. Unfortunately in China, there’s such a brick wall set-up by agencies and things like that, I couldn’t even get my scripts to the people that I wanted. I think Chen Gang, we looked at a lot of films that had interesting supporting casts, so he was somebody who worked a lot in television. We couldn’t find him. He literally had disappeared off the face of China, because he didn’t want to be found. I had about four or five numbers for him, and I couldn’t find him. He was so disillusioned with the film industry that he retired, so we actually had to bring him out of retirement to do this one more film. When you talk to an actor, and you ask him in his 25 years whether he’d put so much of himself, where he believed in the project so much that he was willing to give everything of himself, and he never had that opportunity. I feel like that explains to you what the Chinese film industry is like these days.
It’s just a lot of shitty productions, so there’s a lot of distrust between actors and productions and that also feeds into the culture of actors not willing to do any favors for any filmmakers. “You want me to work? Pay me the fee that I would get on that TV show or commercial. That’s my rate.”
Festworks: When I spoke to Park Chan-wook not too long ago, he told me that Korea is becoming like that, too, where it’s becoming more like Hollywood even for him, who has worked there for years.
Johnny Ma: Yeah, obviously Park Chan-wook is at a different level. When you’re Park Chan-wook, you can work with anybody. I also think Korean actors are coming to China, because there’s so much money there, so I think the Chinese industry has in some way corrupted the surrounding areas. It is an issue for sure, and I feel like to have a healthy film industry in a country, you also to have a healthy independent film industry, and in China, there just isn’t that. In the nineties, there’s a lot of great Chinese films coming out of China, mostly because we have this great idea that nobody wants to do that, but you’re poor and you just find a way to do it. Now, I think the big problem is there are so many other opportunities to make money in a commercial venture or doing a TV series that I think young filmmakers they slowly get moved out. Jia Zhangke says that when you’re an independent filmmaker, you cast a very lonely shadow in China, and that, to me, is true. That’s exactly how I feel, because I think that’s the hardest thing about making independent film in China, in that you’re so alone in your belief, that when I’m making my film there, I’m surrounded by people that think in exactly the same way. If they’re in this film just for the money, they’re potentially not the kind of collaborators I want.
Festworks: What was it like shooting there? Was it hard getting crews and equipment, because you shot in a fairly remote town, right?
Johnny Ma: Yeah, we had to take it away from the main city, because of budgetary reasons. We shot the film for $250,000, which is really tiny, and everybody in this film—unless they’re the main actors—they’re non-professionals, and they’re from the town… and most of them are relatives of my producer. His kid, his two-year-old son, is in the movie. It’s very different than here. I mention that the hardest thing is that you’re doing something that everybody thinks you’re an idiot for doing, because they’re just like, “How is this going to make money? With all the time you’re spending on this, you should just make something more marketable.” The story we’re doing is quite sensitive, so we knew that there was a very good chance we wouldn’t even get distribution in China, and if we didn’t have the festivals supporting us like Berlin and Toronto, we would have nowhere to show it. I would say that was the hardest part.
The other thing about shooting in China, something’s are easier than others, and it’s just very, very different. For example, there’s no unions, so I was told by my producer that if I wanted to, I could shoot 16 or 17 hours a day, but of course, I told him, “Look, I can’t even do that.” So we cut it off at 10 to 12, and I think back in the US there’s a lot more union rules. Over there, there’s just more of a flexibility in that. In the end, we shot 28 days within 30 days, so in a whole month, we had two or three days off, that’s it. Because in China, you’re paying for every single day, so on the weekends, it’s the same rate essentially. That’s how the processes work there, and also, the things that are expensive here when you’re shooting in the U.S., like locations and food and travel and accommodations, in China, those are very low. The thing that is expensive is crew. A crew is extremely expensive, and actors are extremely expensive. Sometimes, I feel like I’m paying my sound guy maybe twice or three times more than I would pay a sound guy in New York, and the one in China is probably not even as good. These are the issues that you deal with, but it off-balances each other, so it’s a different way of making films, that’s for sure.
The honest truth is I feel like the independent scene is a lot more vibrant here in the U.S., because when you have an idea—and even if you have no money—you have your friends who’ll say, “Let’s do it! This is interesting. Let’s just do it on weekends.” That’s the kind of stuff that you can make happen here in the U.S. that you cannot make happen in China. It’s all about connections, so I needed to trust my producer, and I needed to work with the people he works with. Only his connections that he’s made for over 10 or 15 years would be willing to work with us for this long period of time for a small fraction of what they’d get on a commercial. It’s a different way of working, for sure.
Festworks: You mentioned earlier not being sure about getting Chinese distribution, and I was wondering how a movie like this would play for Chinese audiences. I feel they might relate to it more where as Americans would be outsiders looking into this culture. Have you played it for a Chinese audience yet?
Johnny Ma: Unfortunately, we haven’t played in Mainland China—we haven’t had a theatrical (release) yet. Our investor is a distributor as well, so it’s up to them. It’s a business decision, and there are other factors involved whether they will go through a theatrical. There’s a big problem in China with Chinese… there are so many films getting made, and the problem is that there’s a term in Mainland China. It’s called “One Day Distribution,” which means that you put together all of this work for the deliverables to get it put into a theater, and the problem is that unless you’re a big distribution company like Wanda, you can’t control the small theaters. So let’s say for a small theater, by 2 or 3 PM, your film isn’t going well and “X-Men” next door is doing really, they’re just going to change your film to “X-Men,” and there’s nothing you can do about it. You wouldn’t even hear about it. Even worse, just imagine that your film is doing really well in this small town, but this theater manager has a really good relationship with the producer of a bigger distribution company, so when people buy tickets for your film, they would just count it as box office for that film.
Festworks: That sucks.
Johnny Ma: Yeah, that really sucks, and only when you’re a big distribution company, you can control. You have the money and influence to make sure that these things don’t happen, but these are realistic situations for independent films, and that’s why for our film, it doesn’t make sense… I mean, it’s up to our distributor what happens. Internet and TV, those are other sources, but let’s see. Of all the audience we show it to overseas, the Chinese-American or Chinese-European audiences that see it are very welcoming to the film. They’re almost scared for us. “Are you guys going to be okay?” because they were really surprised that a film like this can be made in China.
Festworks: I also was curious about the title “Old Stone.” Where did that come from? Is that a well known term?
Johnny Ma: I’ll tell you. The Chinese title is called Lao Shi, which is the character’s name, and actually, the literal meaning of that is Old Stone, but there’s a double meaning to that also. It’s what you call somebody who is too honest, too naïve. It’s almost like saying, “Oh, that guy is way too honest. He’s easy to cheat.” That, in some way, is the way I wanted my audience to view Lao Shi, because I want people to be angry at him and frustrated and think that he’s stupid and judge him, because all he did because he was trying to do a good thing.
Festworks: You mentioned doing a version with Michael Shannon, and I’m sure people who see this movie will say, “Hey, you could do a version of this in English and America.” It seems like a story that could happen with a few changes. Has anyone approached you about that or do you want to do that?
Johnny Ma: Yeah, it’s definitely in the process of being in talks. When I wrote it originally, I did write it for the States, and I think It would take on a different version. When I saw Only Lovers Left Alive, the Jim Jarmusch film, that really showed me that you can create this amazing world, just in Detroit with an Apocalyptic, almost Trump-ian world with the remnants of what used to be a social system. I think the story would have taken a different turn and maybe been a little more racial as well, like say Michael Shannon comes from a blue collar factory in this town, in a Flint, Michigan kind of place, and he hits somebody from the inner city and then the community of the inner city… even though he’s a good person, he’s being chastised for what he did, and then the people he usually tries to avoid, like the racist, bigot in that factory, would come to his aid, because he sees a part of him and Michael Shannon will be the person stuck in the middle. I think to me the arc of the film is the same, but there’ll just be different things. Like in China, the little details like the cigarette giving, the gift giving…
Festworks: I liked that part of the movie was really interesting. By the way I live in Chinatown, New York, and I’m not sure the cigarette thing is used here as much, but it was interesting to see like that as something so common.
Johnny Ma: Yeah, it’s just like if you’re just walking into a group of people, the first thing you do is trade cigarettes. Even if somebody has cigarettes, you give him your cigarette, and they give you theirs. It’s a sign of kindness and friendship. It’s just a thing. You know how in China, they used to say—I don’t know if you the term—where if you meet somebody, you say “Have you eaten yet?” You’re not saying, “Hey, let’s go eat together,” it’s not. It’s just like saying “Hey, how are you?” These days, you just go up to somebody and offer them a cigarette. It’s just a form of saying “Hello.”
Festworks: If cigarettes weren’t so expensive, I’d buy some and try it out in my neighborhood.
Johnny Ma: If we shot the film in the US, I guess the cigarette budget would be huge, because we went through so much cigarettes. It was crazy.
Festworks: And you’re already starting another movie, something called “Ten Thousand Happiness”?
Johnny Ma: Yeah, yeah. To be honest, that was the project that we went to China in the first place to do. That was a Sundance Labs project in 2014, so that was the project that I took to China, and we had a difficult time getting financing for it, because the current industry in China is star-driven, genre and romantic comedy or slapstick comedy or that sort of style content and fantasy films. It didn’t fit that genre, and because of the actor situation in China, my Ten Thousand Happiness is more of an ensemble piece about an elite family. A grandfather who is 80 years old announces to his family that he’s getting a divorce at the moment he turns 80, and that sets off this chaos in every generation of that particular family, sort of how they look at their own marriage or relationship and happiness, basically. To me, it’s sort of a family film in the style of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet or Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, and I think 2016 Beijing really deserves a portrait of that city and time and how people in the city are trying to find their own individual excess of happiness and wealth in this time. That film, that’s what we’re going back to China to do, because I think I’m in a better position to do that film now, the fact that we said we wanted to do something that can travel across borders and we did that with Old Stone. That just makes us stronger for Ten Thousand Happiness. When I revisited the script this summer after Old Stone, it’s still the freshest and the best thing I’ve ever written, so I’m very driven by that film, and that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next year, for sure.