By and large, filmmaking is a nightmare that never ends, even when it does.
“It baffles me that people are using words like competent, because all I see are mistakes,” says a wry Johnny Ma, calling the Straight from Tel Aviv not too long after squirming through another festival screening of his debut feature, Old Stone. All humility and discomfort aside, Ma’s film, which opens Friday (December 9), has been praised as considerably more than just competent, taking the best Canadian first feature film award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival amid a torrent of critical raves and then setting VIFF on fire a few weeks later.
The taut, wiry tale of a taxi driver in China who hits a motorcyclist and then makes the dire mistake of trying to help him, Ma’s film is an inverted morality tale for a developed world that’s definitively crossed the line into posthuman dystopia. It’s also the work of an aggravated young man.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that there was a lot more humour in the script before, and I wanted it in there,” Ma says. “But I think I made Old Stone at a pretty frustrating time in my life. I was angry, and I needed to release that anger and frustration with a film, and that became Old Stone. The world I painted is a pretty bleak one, I admit. It’s not how I see the world, although it was, certainly, at that point. Bureaucracy is the reason that a lot of good things don’t get done.”
Bureaucracy—as embodied by a parade of hospital clerks, insurance people, and company lawyers—is unquestionably the villain in Old Stone, but Ma might be referring a little more obliquely to the painful work of getting his film in the can. As a rookie director with a limited budget, he also concedes that the obstacles he faced ended up forcing some of his best decisions, from the film’s spare, airtight construction to the emergency casting of its note-perfect leading man, Chen Gang.
Ma turned to the retired TV actor when his first lead quit the production a week before shooting. He was already working with lesser-known actors because he “wasn’t even able to get close” to the more marketable stars. Gang’s big-screen work amounted to a whopping two supporting roles, but it was enough to get Ma’s antennae buzzing.
“There was something in him that was so genuine,” he says. “He was actually really difficult to find, and we had to give up on him in our first round of casting. I remember having this meeting with my core team and saying, ‘I need to find this guy.’ In the end, I had five numbers and finally one of them worked.”
Even then, he adds, Gang’s fear of flying meant that Ma had to audition the actor by Skype. “But there was always the sense that I wanted him. I looked at him and said, ‘He could be Old Stone,’ basically. And then he drove his Porsche down and we started shooting eight days later. It was pretty crazy.”
Ma’s instincts were dead-on. Gang’s sad-eyed take on Lao Shi provides the necessary human centre to a film that reads like an arch mutation of Franz Kafka and neo-noir. “It was the one thing that I recognized as I was watching the film again. He’s the entire reason that the film and the through line work,” Ma offers. “I think he saw Old Stone as his last opportunity to walk the red carpet, and I think he deserves it.”
Indeed, Gang’s performance has been routinely singled out by impressed critics, although his director could maybe give himself a little credit. Ma readily admits that he “pushed all my actors very hard” and suggests that Gang’s painful journey in the film was mirrored on-set. The docu-realism of its early scenes gradually morphs into something with the high style and dark overtures of Blood Simple, and by the time it was over, the relationship between Gang and Ma was fraught.
“Any actor-director relationship is a difficult one,” Ma says with a soft chuckle, adding that the airplane-phobic star still hasn’t caught a screening of the movie. “But this is not the way Chinese actors are used to working, and it was my first film. If it was another director, it would be a different story, I think. I can understand. He was 50 years old, coming to a set where the average age was mid-30s. Of course he looked at us and wondered: ‘Can these guys actually do it or are they full of shit?’ I get it. I totally get it.”
One wonders how Ma’s methods will impact the stars of his next film, which he will return to prep in China after a little R & R in Israel. Now that he’s a hot property, genre scripts have been making their way to the Shanghai-born filmmaker, whose globetrotting bio includes a stint at UBC. (His parents still live in Vancouver.) Instead, Ma is reviving the project he abandoned prior to Old Stone. “A family story,” in his words, “about an 80-year-old grandfather who announces he’s getting a divorce, and it makes every generation of the family rethink their own marriages and relationships.”
Ma says he couldn’t get the financing before. “But, hopefully, things will be a little easier now.” At the very least, we can expect them to be considerably more than competent and almost certainly not full of shit.