Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#24: High and Low

(Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Zodiac was my favorite movie of the 2000s and I now have little doubt that David Fincher has seen and loved High and Low, the first fully contemporary Kurosawa film I've seen. This brilliant police procedural begins with a businessman maneuvering to take over his shoe company, but quickly transitions into a kidnapping plot, told from beginning to end in painstaking detail.

It's not just the detail and procedural nature of the film that reminds me of Zodiac. Both films are intensely complex technical displays from master filmmakers, mostly for narrative suspense, but occasionally for flashier devices such as the Transamerican pyramid in Zodiac and the pink smoke here. Both films feature intense, understated performances from their leads (though admittedly Jake Gyllenhaal is no Toshiro Mifune). And both films successfully merge the suspense and intensity of the crime with the monotony and work ethic necessary to solve it.

Of course, High and Low is not based on a true story, and the killer doesn't get away, so we get a satisfying conclusion (of sorts). Where Zodiac used the obsession and wide-ranging investigation of the case to create an epic, High and Low's far-reaching ambition is in the varied elements that pull together into a solvable case. The police use taped phone conversations, scraped paint, false newspaper stories, a child's drawing, plain old boots on the ground, and finally smoke twisting and turning up into the sky. The movie's focus is so tightly constructed that the narrative lacks any excess, which makes it even more impressive how big this movie's scope seems.

Finally, Kurosawa's direction - most notably his framing and spacial work here - is what makes this film so brilliant. For anyone watching this for the first time, pay attention to the blocking in the first sequences in Mifune's house, and how Kurosawa uses the camera to cycle between the characters, eliciting the perfect emotion at every moment. This is a master at work, even better out of his traditional element, but still at the top of his game.

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