50. The luminous waffle
June 5th, 2021

High and Low (1963)
(File under: movies, kurosawa, breakfast foods)

Watch: criterion.com/films/543-high-and-low

Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low could make a neat double-bill with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, in that they’re both movies about class that revolve around a beautiful, modernist building. In fact, before spiraling down and out into a sweltering Yokohama, almost the entire first hour of High and Low takes place in one room—but Kurosawa’s arrangement of characters in widescreen makes it feel like a concert hall.

Kingo Gondo, a wealthy executive, receives a call telling him his son has been kidnapped. As he’s preparing to pay the ransom, it becomes apparent the kidnapper has actually taken the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. With his entire net worth staked on a shaky corporate takeover, does Gondo pay the ransom on a child who isn’t his and risk everything, or abandon the boy and remain a captain of, uh, the ladies footwear industry?

The stills above are all taken from the first hour of the film, but they’re only telling half the story. These characters (Gondo and his wife, his chauffeur and his business assistant, and a phalanx of detectives) are constantly arranging and rearranging themselves into elegant constellations that feel like they’d be ruined if any actor was even a centimetre off their mark.

In the second half of the film the action moves outside of Gondo’s gleaming mansion, and becomes a meticulous police procedural that moves through hospitals, railyards, slums, and dance clubs. Then comes this scene:

A cop hears a new detail in the recording of the kidnapper and gathers his men, sweating in their shirtsleeves, to listen in. The camera tracks downwards as if pulling up a seat, and the men assemble into another perfect composition, as magical and seamlessly engineered as opening the page of a pop-up book.

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