We went to the current arthouse smash Parasite last week. It is a South Korean film written and directed by Bong Joon Ho. It won the top prize in Cannes earlier this year. The New York Times has raved about Ho and the film in five reviews and articles or features accessible here.
Unlike the Times crew, I don’t recommend the film for its insight or uplift. I don’t recommend it, period. It is an extremely well-made film that, by my reckoning, goes wildly astray. Although the fault may well be mine, I didn’t get anything good out of it.
The film, however, put me in mind of the High and Low, by the late Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s films — films including The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and many more — are entertaining and great on their own terms. They were also highly influential on a generation or two of American filmmakers.
Kurosawa was a great artist. Not surprisingly, he loved Shakespeare. Throne of Blood gives us Macbeth as Ran gives us King Lear, Japanese style. That is what goes under the denomination of cultural appropriation in today’s parlance. Can Kurosawa do that? Yes, he can.
The cultural appropriation continues in High and Low. The film is based on the police procedural A King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), but goes far beyond it. It is an amazing film.
At the opening we meet businessman Kingo Gondo as he is engaged in raising funds to buy out the shoe manufacturing company he runs. Having raised the funds to save the company in the form he seeks to build on, he is told that his son has been kidnapped for ransom. He will have to use the funds to ransom his son. It is a decision he doesn’t agonize over. He doesn’t give it a second thought.
It turns out, however, that the kidnapper has mistakenly taken his servant’s son. Now what? That is a decision over which he agonizes for a night. The drama is excruciating.
The second half of the film depicts the police pursuit of the kidnapper. In an unforgettable scene toward the end of the film, Gondo seeks out the kidnapper in prison. He wants to meet the man who threw his life off course. In a moment of deep humanity, the kidnapper’s reflected face is superimposed over Gondo’s. You can catch the image in the first few seconds of A.O. Scott’s comments on the film from the Times’s Critics Picks series in the video below.