Tuesday, 25 February 2020

A House like Heaven: The Social Allegories of 'High and Low' and 'Parasite'

Just a few cool parallels you can make in the ensemble staging and composition
of shots between Akira Kurosawa's High and Low and Bong Joon Ho's Parasite 

WARNING: Spoilers for Parasite to follow. Minimal for High and Low because that's the film I want to recommend to anyone who hasn't seen it yet but if you kind of want to go in cold, then go ahead and skip this article. And if you want to keep thoughts about the two films separate, key individual thoughts on High and Low will be in blue, Parasite will be in red, while I'll also keep key thoughts on the films' common dominant themes in bold.

'Your house looked like heaven, high up there'. 
It's a line uttered by a character at the finale of High and Low but could easily come from the mouth of any members of the Kim family to any of the Park family in Parasite. Wealth in both films is epitomised through elevation upon a hill: the 'heavenly', wealthy environment presiding over the impoverished lower depths of the 'hell', epitomised by the impoverished tiny flat of the 'villain' of High and Low, and the semi-basement apartment in Parasite which the camera frequently encloses the characters within a tight space with little breathing room - literal and figurative immobility, while the elaborate world of the mansion and the bunker underneath the Park mansion which literally manifests into a living hell shows the tenuous, fragile co-existence of these two worlds. Sometimes so close yet so apart. A simple enough starting point as a theme, commonly explored through social inequality and class conflict dramas. The approaches that Kurosawa and Bong are very different, though - the former puts you within the wealthy environment as the initial perspective and then branches 'downwards' as the world collides. While the latter introduces you to the impoverished family 'below' and with them ascends gradually upwards.
In line with this, the wealthy patriarchal figure in both films are very different. Both Toshiro Mifune's King Gondo and Lee Sun Kyun's Mr Park are both presented as composed, calmly dignified figures. Perspective comes into play beautifully with just how differently they are presented though: Gondo is essentially our protagonist for the first half of the film, and yet there is also a certain distance we are granted to him. It is not coldness or even calculation really, but the reserved determination of a businessman who puts his own set of ethics, business or otherwise, above all else - he is who he is and sticks to his beliefs and ethics. Whereas with Mr Park, who deals with everything from work to the possibility of his driver leaving his bodily deposits in the backseat of his car, it's all handled very to the point in a professional manner. We are given an outsider's perspective of essentially a polite 'front' by Mr Park in dealing with everything in the most professional of manners that he can switch on and off, while Gondo he expresses his anger at the kidnapper seeking to undermine him very clearly, announcing it very clearly to everyone in the room as just part of who he is.
In Parasite the poor consider the niceness of the Parks, with 'no resentments' and 'no creases' being on account of money being an 'iron' which smooths out these creases - 'they are nice because they are rich' and 'if I had all this I would be kinder' remarks the poor mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) muses as she looks around the wealthy Park mansion. Meanwhile in High and Low Gondo's distanced presence initially puts off the detectives on the case, but ultimately through his actions proves them wrong about their preconceptions. As one of the detectives remarks, 'that Gondo is all right. Usually, l waste no love on the rich. l didn't like him at first. Excuse me.' Both rich patriarchal figures are put to the test of just how 'nice' they are, not a simple litmus test by any means and far from conclusive about the overall messages of their respective films, but it is an interesting thing to note about both films. 
 The visual storytelling in both films is just superb as distance is always distinctly conveyed with Gondo and Mr Park. In the introduction between Mr Park and 'Driver' Kim in Parasite, a line in the dividing glass separates the two, and in the subsequent car scene their interactions are conveyed with edits, always separate even when the conversations are flowing with earnest appreciation for one another. Mr Park is friendly, warm, but there is always a divide in the car with the exception of a panning shot where Driver Kim asks Mr Park whether he loves his wife - the 'crossing' of the line that Mr Park intensely dislikes

In High and Low the distance betweenn Gondo and the people who work for him, whether it's his assistant or chauffeur or the police detectives, is conveyed through Mifune's acting where it is not a wall, or a line even, it is just how he deals with people. And as the high stakes of the film begin to transpire through the kidnapping plot the distance between characters grows tighter, leading to the shot of Gondo sitting quietly in contemplation as he considers his options, surrounded by subordinates. He is enclosed whereas Mr Park is divided. What to make of this? Honestly, it's all up to interpretation. It's a cool, fascinating and invigorating ensemble staging choice for both directors, and you can make of it what you want to make of it. 
Moving away from Mr Park and Gondo for awhile, there's just so many other fascinating parallels in the films which I, upon five re-watches of Parasite, have yet to even get to the bottom with. You could have a field day just by looking at how the figure of the 'rich kid' is presented in both films. Both love playing dress up, both seem to take after or look after their fathers more, both are a central yet almost passive element to things getting out of hand in both films. Gondo, however, notably lets his kid play with the chauffeur's son Shinichi - they are friends and while he doesn't treat the chauffeur and his son like 'family' so to speak in terms of interactions or anything, what he ultimately does, the decision he makes over the course of the film is essentially that of pretty much treating the chauffeur's son as his own son.

While Gondo's chauffeur's child plays with Shinichi, the Park family never enquire about Kims' family, and the son's playtime buddies are the first housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eu), the Kim daughter Ki-jung who tutors him in art (Park So Dam), and his papa. Oh and if getting scared into convulsions by the fella living in the basement underneath counts, I guess him too. They're all dead by the end of the film. Is there something to take away from that? I think so, what a little brat. In all seriousness though the rich son is a figure in Parasite who while almost peripheral is utterly essential to the proceedings, and there's so much that could be unpicked in that regard.
Phones are an essential driving force to both films. In High and Low it is the means with which the lower class kidnapper threatens the upper class Gondo through ransom demands. As the call proceeds, all people in Gondo's living room converge upon it as the lifeline they are all clinging onto. In Parasite the phone is essentially a weapon wielded to gain the upper hand as in effect one group of 'parasites' seeks to wipe the other group of parasites out, even if it means taking themselves down along with them. As expected, everything unfolds into chaos as all hands converge upon essentially a matter of life or death with regards to the lower class being able to stay within the upper stratosphere of the Park family home. The basement dwelling Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon) compares it quite aptly to a North Korean missile launcher. One push and everything will implode an already tense and messy situation into oblivion, and even the temporary resolution of it only paves way to increase chaos. 

It is a dog eat dog world in both films, where the only way that the poor can maintain any sort of stability is by in effect stepping over the other, gaining control of the other. The kidnapper in High and Low makes use of a frenzied junkie in the slums to his own advantage by testing heroin on her, and in Parasite the Kims sacrifice one working class employee after another to their schemes, and Mr Kim is forced to restrain the first housekeeper and her husband in the bunker in order to maintain the Kim's increasingly fragile web of lies. Hell as it is was concocted and kept under wraps by the first housekeeper, maintaining the fragile balance within the household as she kept her husband within the bunker and providing him with regular food. Once she dies, like Odin in Thor Ragnarok it paves way for hell being unwrapped and unchained (going into hiding for a bit while Martin Scorsese puts a hit on me for putting a MCU film in discussion with Parasite) and hell implodes onto the surface, resulting in quite the disastrous birthday party for the rich son. 
Hell is quelled but at a cost to both parties in both films: in High and Low the kidnapper 'loses' but the money cannot be recovered in time to save Gondo's business pursuits. In Parasite both the rich and poor families lose family members close and dear to them, as the frenzied rage of the bunker-dwelling Geun-sae murders Ki-jung, the only 'poor' character who really 'fit' into the wealthy surroundings and is in turn murdered himself, reverting things back to the equilibrium in a tragic fashion; while the poor father murders the rich father in a blind rage as a buildup of his resentment toward Mr Park mocking his 'scent' of poverty behind his back, the tragedy ensuing for his family in front of him, and the rage at his lot in life that has been building on since the beginning.  It is the the rage and resentment of the class divide that instigates and de-escalates over the course of both High and Low and Parasite, resulting in sombre reflections of the fallout for both. In both films the plans of the impoverished do not work out: the kidnapper 'loses' to Gondo in High and Low after being caught by the authorities, and it all amounted to nothing. One of his last lines concerns how his hatred of Gondo gave him a 'purpose in life' where it was 'interesting to make fortunate men unfortunate'. His plan was to ruin Gondo's life, but ultimately his failure and irony in making a 'hero' of King Gondo due to the positive publicity he gets in the process, is both a cathartic and tragic element of the film. His plan did not succeed, and his death is simply a footnote on the 'hell' he was born into. In Parasite the poor son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) repeatedly talks of plans to which his poor father sombrely reflects that the only kind of plan that cannot fail is 'no plan at all'. 
Both films end on the tragic note of the class divide being the one constant as Gondo, the rich man tries to comprehend the tragedy of the poor man not for any personal gain, not for any sort of desire for vengeance, but sadness reflecting the immeasurable divide between the two through the wire mesh divide. 'If I had to go to heaven, I'd really tremble' bitterly remarks the kidnapper - there is no place for him there. And yet Gondo tries to understand and deeply sympathises.And as Parasite concludes the poor son lays out the plan, a 'fundamental plan' to earn money and but the house to rescue his father who is hiding in the bunker who has in effect replaced the previous parasite and descending into an even lower hell than he was in before. This 'fundamental plan' however is a futile hope that will never work out. A self-comforting wish fulfilment fantasy that will never be fulfilled. 'Take care until then' is a then that will never come, and the poor son is stuck where he was in the beginning, only with even less than he had before. 'I do think the film has a hopeful streak', screenwriter Han Jin Won says on Parasite, however, and I agree with him in the sense that while it is a bleak tale, it carries with it an optimism in terms of stories being heard. That's another discussion for another day I suppose.

Edit: in addition, - https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/ Cool article I was linked to which goes further in this regard with regards to the set design and how it reflects the High/Low, Heaven/Hell dynamic!! 


  1. Having just seen High and Low for the first time myself recently, this is pretty apt.