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Riveting Thriller – HIGH AND LOW

HIGH AND LOW is considered one of master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa‘s minor works – which of course means it’s still better than most other movies.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a self made man; a slum kid who worked up the corporate ladder to become a wealthy executive. Now he lives in a fortress of glass and steel high above the slums he came from. As the story begins, we learn that Gondo has secretly borrowed against everything he owns so that he can take control of the company himself. But before he can hatch his business plan, his only son is kidnapped and held for ransom, forcing Gondo to pay up and risk everything he has worked for. And no sooner has he made this decision that his son is discovered on the premises – turns out the kidnapper grabbed the chauffeur’s son by mistake! Now Gondo must decide: to lose his fortune by paying the ransom or to lose his soul by letting a poor man’s son die? This ‘either/or’ duality informs every aspect of Kurosawa‘s High and Low, a.k.a. Heaven and Hell (the film’s original Japanese title). These themes are reinforced visually by the recurring image of Gondo’s sleek, modernist home perched high above the dirty, ramshackle slum. He can look down into the slum but Gondo learns too late that resentful eyes are looking back up at him. The binary motif of the film is also reflected in its unusual two act structure: The first act unfolds almost entirely within Gondo’s living room and at times feels like a stage play. The effect is claustrophobic and establishes that Gondo is completely cut off from his old life; the windows block the noise and stench of the outside world and the air conditioning keeps him cool as those below suffer in the sweltering heat. One could almost say that Gondo no longer breathes the same air as other people. If the first act is a confined domestic drama (with a dash of corporate intrigue thrown in) then the second act is a sprawling police procedural, as Kurosawa shifts the focus away from Gondo and follows the police as they hunt the kidnapper. Their search takes them from Yokohama’s busy train system, through its slums and into the bars and drug dens where the city’s most desperate and vulnerable gather. The detectives meticulously piece together the clues until a portrait of the kidnapper begins to emerge. By the time Gondo meets the kidnapper face to face Kurosawa has created an indelible dual portrait. Kurosawa doesn’t ask us to condone or forgive the kidnapper; merely to try to understand why he did what he did. As in his earlier film Stray Dog, Kurosawa explores the terrifying ways that fate can propel two similar people down two wildly different paths.

You can also read this post here and can check out some of Marco’s other film related musings on his (sporadically) updated blog.

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