This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Austin Langdon’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
High and Low is an impressive class critique and masterfully crafted. The structure, composition, and blocking, aall brilliantly tell a story of moral influence over decision-making and class divides.
The film is split into two halves. The first half is about Gondo’s moral dilemma over whether or not to pay the ransom for his drivers kidnapped child. If he gives the money to the kidnapper he will have extreme debts that he would be unable to pay. He was willing to pay when he thought it was his child who was kidnapped, but couldn’t justify sacrificing his company and fortune when it turns out the ransom is for his drivers child, not his.
The entirety of the first half of the film, until they get on the train, takes place in Gondos house on top of a hill overlooking the area where the poor live. Within this space, we understand Gondos dilemma even if we do not sympathize with his decision to not pay the ransom. We are confronted with the moral weight of his decision not to pay. The kid will likely die. There are no excuses he can use to justify his decision that do not pertain to wealth preservation. In the second half of the film the geographic scope expands. We see detectives question poor people down below and we see the conditions in which they live. Those who live below Gondo endure sweltering heat, crowded spaces, and see Gondos house high above it all, as if the house was looking down on them, as a ruler over a people would.
Our understanding of Gondos dilemma in the first half of the film is put under scrutiny as we see how the people, living below him, are forgotten, deprived, and suffering. It is only possible to sympathize with Gondo in the beginning because the world in which he lives is so unfair. Morality and self-interest run in opposite directions. It is only possible to see Gondo as noble, because we know the consequences of poverty. But his happiness depends on the preservation of the class divide that insulates him from the heat and misery down below. People have to suffer to maintain that divide.
What makes his decision to pay the ransom so hard? What could be worth a childs life? He was initially willing to sacrifice a child just so he could preserve his membership in his class and prevent his transition into the lower class. Is living like them really so terrible that a Child’s life should be sacrificed to prevent it? If the kidnapper is a bad guy for threatening to kill a child in order to obtain wealth, what is the difference between him and Gondo who was willing to sacrifice a childs life to preserve wealth? In the end, the only difference is that Gondo eventually values life more and he chooses to pay the ransom. The 2nd half of the film, plot wise, is about restoring Gondo’s wealth. His money was stolen, and now his livelihood is in jeopardy. By paying the ransom, Gondo has taken on a life-sentence of debts. In order to make this right, the police, and even the media who sympathize with Gondo, go to great lengths to restore his wealth, and punish the kidnapper who took it.
In the 1st half of the film, the kidnapper is portrayed as the person who takes everything from Gondo, but it’s the bank in the 2nd half of the film that really takes Gondos livelihood from him. The injustice of the film does not just come from the people up high or down low, both have immoral people among them, preying on the innocent but they all live in a system which punishes people for saving a childs life. In the beginning, the directors of National Shoes want to deliberately make less durable shoes so they can profit off their customers more by lowering production costs and forcing poor people to buy more of their products. In order to enhance their profits, they take more from the poor. While the kidnapper is objectively guilty, this is also the way of thinking behind those who attempt to restore Gondos wealth in the 2nd half of the film. The Kidnapper stole the money, so in order to make right with Gondo, they have to take the money back from him. Theres nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is the fair outcome. But within the context of the film it restates the idea that the rich preserve, enhance, and restore their wealth by taking from the poor, be they guilty or innocent. This means selling less durable goods so the poor have to buy more, leaving the poor poorer and the rich richer. It also means you don’t even flinch when predatory financial and business institutions, that seek to punish Gondo for choosing the life of a child over profit, come to exploit that decision. A wrong was committed here, but if any punishment or compensation is to be made, look towards the lower class for it. Punishment is reserved for them, and compensation is only rightfully sought from them. Well, theres actually another group who are punished in the film, people who act morally in an immoral system. The poor are expected to suffer. It is only a problem when the rich begin to suffer.