WTF ASIA 102: High and Low (1963)

The first of April is the 100th birthday of legendary Japanese actor Mifune Toshirō. Born and raised in the Japanese-occupied…Chinese province…uh…you know what, never mind. To commemorate the birthday of Toshiro Mifune, I look at one of the films that he did with director Kurosawa Akira.

*Throws dart*

Heaven and Hell? That is a bit on the nose, eh? Well, all right. I guess if you were expecting a Samurai movie, then April Fools to you. This is Heaven and Hell, otherwise known as…

High and Low

Available in Australia, Canada, the United States, and maybe some other countries. Approximately 144 minutes.

 

Gondo Kingo lives in a fancy house on top of a hill overlooking the bustling industrial port city of Yokohama. He grew up with modest means, starting work as an apprentice at the age of 16 at a company for women’s shoes called National Shoes. He worked his way up, married a woman from a wealthy family, and built a little empire for himself within National Shoes. Currently, he is in charge of the factory that makes the shoes and owns 13% of the company’s stock. He is a tough boss, but fair, and is very proud of the shoes that he produces.

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This pride in product has become a problem for three other company executives. They do not particularly care for his sturdy expensive shoe; they want something that is cheaper and flimsier, so women will buy them frequently. But arguing about why women buy shoes with this man is not why these three other men have come to his house today. Their issue is with the president of the company, whom they believe has no understanding of style. They propose to join forces with Kingo to hold a combined 34% and override the president’s 25% and vote him out at next month’s shareholders’ meeting. For his part, Kingo would be the executive director.

Kingo takes some time to consider this proposal and—just kidding; he just took some time to craft his rejection. He detests the shoe that they show give him, claiming that it would not last a month before needing to be replaced. He does not want to make “army boots” as the president does, but wants to make shoes that are durable and comfortable as well as stylish. He takes pride in his product and he will not have his named sullied just so that the bigwig moneymen can make a few millions on mass-produced forgettable disposable movies that would not stand the test of…wait, did I say movies? I meant shoes. Shoes that would not stand the tests of time. Anyways, the three executives decide that they will, instead, vote with the “Old Man” to force out Kingo. Kingo dares them to do so, telling his right-hand man Kawanishi to escort them out.

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Kingo’s wife Reiko is surprised to see the executives leave so soon and without Kingo accompanying them to the door. They act coy about why they are leaving, so she asks Kingo, who shuts her down, saying that was a business matter. This is not the first time that he has used that excuse without a follow-up. Meanwhile, as they are getting into their car, the three executives try to tempt Kawanishi with an executive position if he can find out what Kingo’s plans are for them. He politely declines, and then goes back inside.

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It turns out the Kingo does have a plan, though he will not say what it is yet. Apparently, this is not the first time that there has been feuding within the company, so he has been taking steps to secure his position. Reiko observes their son Jun playing the America-inspired game of Sheriff and Outlaw with the chauffeur’s son Shinichi, and says that Jun shares his Kingo’s love of blood sport. Actually, they have changed roles and Jun is the Outlaw this time. Kingo tells him not to simply run, but to hide and then ambush the sheriff, saying that a man must kill or be killed. Reiko claims that Kingo’s attitude has worsened; that he is losing his humanity. Kingo retorts that he does not want the power of the presidency; he just wants to make shoes his way. A woman could never understand women’s shoes.

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It is then when he receives a call from Osaka. He sets a deal and tells Kawanishi to arrange for a flight there. Now Kingo reveals his plan. His partners believe that his share is 13%, but he had actually bought 15% more over the last three years. With that phone call, he just arranged to buy another 19% for a total of 47%, or just enough to overrule the 46% that his partners and the president own. Kawanishi will go to Osaka with a check for 50-million yen (roughly $500,000 back then or $40-million in today’s money) to buy the stock. Reiko is nervous; they may be rich, but 50-million yen is still a lot of money. Where did he get it? Kingo had borrowed against everything, including the house. His entire fortune is in that check. Kawanishi notes that this is just a deposit, meaning that the deal is actually for 150-million yen. Kingo reasons that he can easily get the rest once he wrests control of the company from the others. Kingo is rather pleased with himself, but Reiko and Kawanishi are still unsure.

So, if you have not seen this movie before, then you may be thinking what I had been thinking: 47 may be larger than 46, but it is not over 50. Even with that 19%, Kingo’s hold is not guaranteed. What if anyone who owns even 2% sides with the opposition? What will he do then? Well, don’t even bother with that, because this movie is about to go in a different direction.

Aoki the chauffeur arrives and asks if they have seen his son. While Reiko goes looking for the kids, Kingo tells Aoki to drive Kawanishi to the airport. Just then, Kingo receives a phone call. Someone has kidnapped Jun. Reiko runs back to listen in. Kawanishi does as well. The kidnapper demands 30-million yen, with very detailed specifications. He says that he wants it ready by tomorrow, when he will call back with more instructions. He also forbids Kingo from calling the police and threatens to kill Jun if his demands are not met. He hangs up abruptly.

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Reiko is distraught, but Kingo tries to remain calm. He will pay the ransom, reasoning that he can raise more money later to take over the company. He also stops Kawanishi from calling the police. Suddenly, Jun walks in, having heard his mother call for him. Reiko embraces him, relieved that he is okay. Kingo, however, is still upset, thinking that someone is playing a joke on him. Then it hits him: where is Shinichi? Jun says that Shinichi never looked for him when he was hiding. The kidnapper must have mixed up the two boys, since they had exchanged outfits. Aoki runs outside shouting for his son.

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Kingo orders Kawanishi to call the police. Reiko protests that something could happen to Shinichi if the kidnapper finds out that the police have gotten involved. Kingo argues that the kidnapper will release Shinichi once he realizes that he got the wrong kid; after all, the kidnapper could not expect a chauffeur to pay such a high ransom.

A squad of police officers arrive in a department store delivery truck. Chief Inspector Tokura asks Reiko to close the drapes so that they can work without being spotted by anyone outside. They hook up some devices to the phone so that they can listen in as well as record conversations and trace where they originate. Kingo thinks that the kidnapper will not call again, but will simply return Shinichi once he realizes that he got the wrong kid, and to broadcast the mistake on radio and TV in case he doesn’t. Tokura states that the kidnapper would know that Kingo had contacted the police and kill Shinichi. Kingo refuses to believe that the kidnapper would go through with his threats upon the wrong kid, but Tokura is less willing to gamble with Shinichi’s life. He says that his first priority is saving the boy, catching the kidnapper comes second. He says that this case is unprecedented, as the highest ransom ever demanded previous to this was only two-million yen. Tokura hypothesizes that the kidnapper is extreme, and may be mentally disturbed.

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As they are talking and the other officers are setting up equipment, Aoki has been standing meekly, silently, and helplessly by the doorway between the living room and the entrance, clutching a piece of clothing that he had planned to give to his son. Tokura goes over to him, not promising anything but to do everything that he can. But, right now, all they can do is wait for the kidnapper’s next move.

Helpless as he may be, Aoki still offers to drive Kawanishi to the airport, but Kingo tells Kawanishi to take a taxi instead.

The kidnapper calls back and everyone runs into place. The kidnapper says that he got the wrong boy, but still demands that Kingo pay up or the boy dies. Kingo protests that this is ridiculous, but the kidnapper repeats his threat. In fact, the kidnapper argues that this is a lucky break. Since he took a kid unrelated to the man from whom he is demanding payment, then the crime of kidnapping is separate from the demand for money, meaning that his sentence would be lower if he were to get arrested. Kingo protests once again, but the kidnapper says that Kingo does not have the guts to let the kid die and hangs up.

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I have no idea if what the kidnapper said about the law is or was true, but the movie treats it like it is; the kidnapper could snatch any child off the street and then shake down a rich person for money. But this is not any child off the street; this is the son of a man standing right there in the room with everyone else, who can do nothing but depend on them to do the right thing.

Kingo argues that this is not simply a matter of money; the kidnapper is out for Kingo himself, wanting to make him throw away his hard-earned money, to make him suffer, and to see him humiliated. With Aoki behind him, trying to disappear into the curtains, Kingo proclaims that he will not pay. Reiko pleads with her husband to pay, if only to reunite her son with his friend. Kawanishi says that it is not that simple, given the financial situation that Kingo is in, but Reiko retorts that Kingo was willing to pay for his own son; that he could raise money later. Kawanishi reminds her that Kingo had mortgaged everything; that statement had been self-delusion. Kingo stops Kawanishi from talking before he can air even more of his dirty laundry in front of everyone, including Jun. Finally, Reiko takes Jun to bed.

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It is Kawanishi’s turn to talk with Tokura. What is the guarantee that the boy will be returned if the ransom is paid? What guarantee is there that he is even still alive? Tokura simply says that they can only hope. Kawanishi takes a different approach. Surely the kidnapper is intelligent enough to know that he is risking death himself if he kills the boy. Tokura points out that Kingo himself said that the kidnapper may be obsessed, and that his twisted logic may stem from that, not concern for his own life or the law. The police exit the living room, leaving only Kawanishi and Kingo at opposite corners. Kawanishi is about to leave for Osaka, but Kingo is so lost in thought that it takes a while for him to even look at Kawanishi, before telling him to go.

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The phone rings, but Kawanishi and Kingo both insist on him still going. Meanwhile, Aoki runs back into the room, and Kingo waivers, yelling at Kawanishi to wait and yelling at the police to come back. The kidnapper puts Shinichi on the phone and Aoki calls out to him. The kidnapper once again demands payment or for the boy’s life and hangs up. After hearing his son’s voice, Aoki finally speaks up, begging Kingo to pay the ransom, words flowing out like a torrent, swearing eternal fealty to his boss. Now it is Kingo’s turn to attempt to disappear into the curtains like prey, as Aoki gets louder and louder. Kingo eventually tells Aoki to stop, now claiming that he does want to pay, but cannot. Aoki does not understand.

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Once again, Kawanishi announces that he is leaving. Now Reiko tells him to wait. She goes over to Aoki and assures him that Kingo will not let anything happen to Shinichi. As Kawanishi is about to go, Jun returns as if on cue, asking about Shinichi. Kingo tells Kawanishi to stop; to postpone the trip to Osaka until tomorrow. Kawanichi gives the check back to Kingo. Kingo announces that he is tired, and takes Jun back upstairs. Everyone takes the rest of the night to think over what to do.

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The next morning, Tokura tells Kingo that the entire police local force is at his disposal to solve this crime and that the kidnapper may get fifteen years for what he has done. Kingo says that it will not be enough to save him from financial ruin. He has put his life into that check, and that backing away from the deal will leave him deep in debt and without a job. Reiko insists that they can start over, but Kingo says that she grew up wealthy and knows nothing about poverty. Perhaps he could start again from the bottom, but he asserts that she would never survive, despite her insistence that she does not care for the fancy things. He calls her spoiled, and that he cannot sacrifice himself, his wife, and his son for Aoki. And why does he get targeted, when there are other people who are richer than he? Reiko says that they have no choice, that she and Jun are willing to make the sacrifice, but again Kingo refuses.

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Kingo sees Kawanishi in standing outside the living room and tries to give him back the check. Kawanishi, however, is now hesitant to take it. Purchasing the shares may secure National Shoes for Kingo. But if word gets out that that deal was done at the expense of a child’s life, the public would turn against Kingo and the company. No one would buy their shoes.  Kingo starts to turn his fury at Kawanishi for doing a complete 180 from the night before, but Kawanishi asks him to consider Reiko’s feelings, reminding him that the basis of his fortune came from her dowry. While it is clear that Kawanishi’s concern here is still about the fate of National Shoes, he repeats the arguments that everyone has been making to Kingo. Kingo suspects that the other executives made Kawanishi a better offer regarding the company if he sabotaged the Osaka deal. It turns out that he was correct, and that Kawanishi had told them about Kingo’s entire plan. After seeing how Kingo reacted when he thought that his son was in danger and how much he waivered all night regarding Shinichi, Kawanishi figured that it was not a safe bet to put his future in the hands of a man who would torpedo it all for the sake of someone else. Ten years of loyal service would mean nothing. Kingo orders him to leave, saying that he still has the means to kick them all out of the company. Kawanishi leaves, but not before repeating the kidnapper’s taunt that Kingo does not have the guts to sacrifice Shinichi.

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Toshiro Mifune may be most associated with Jidaigeki or Samurai films. Yet, that accounts for only around 68 out of the one 185 film and TV projects that he did (if Wikipedia and IMDB are to be trusted) and 8 out of the 16 Kurosawa films where he played a role. I thought that I would like to highlight one of his non-Samurai roles for his birthday. Worry not, though; I will get around to other Mifune Samurai movies later on.

I went into this movie knowing basically three things: Akira Kurosawa directed it, it used verticality to display wealth disparity, and there was a house involved. So, by merely reading the first couple of paragraphs of this article, you know more than I did. Good thing that I usually try to avoid completely spoiling the movies here, right?

The title High and Low gives a rather neutral-sounding differentiation between the Gondo residence and the city that lies before it. Heaven and Hell is a little less neutral-sounding. The house on the high hill is luxurious, spacious, quiet, and has the rarest commodity of all: air conditioning. Yokohama, however, is busy, cramped, filthy, and sweltering in the summer heat. Kingo can go to his tinted window and look at the chaos below, maybe even opening the window to take in the heat. Yet, he can close that window again, close the curtains, and turn back. Those below who are lucky enough to actually have a place to live that is half the size of Kingo’s living room cannot merely escape Yokohama, but they may be able to see the Gondo house out of the only window that they have. Who does this guy think he is that he deserves all of that?

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In coming up with films, Kurosawa has often turned to literature for inspiration. It can be classical Russian works or Shakespeare. In this case, his inspiration was some American cop series called 87th Precinct. Under the name Ed McBain, Salvatore Albert Lombino would write 55 of these books between 1956 and 2005, with the last one being released posthumously. 1959’s King’s Ransom was the 10th in the series, and focused on a shoe manufacturer named Douglas King. And while the name “Kingo” may not have the explicit royal connotations that “King” does, it does mean “gold” in Japanese, so it still works. And, maybe, it works even better in the context of the movie. America’s obsession with royalty may be due to it not having official royalty. Japan has a  very ancient Imperial house, though it has been largely stripped of its practical powers thanks to America. So, who is Kingo if not a King? He is a man of money, specifically modern money.

I have not read the book (when have I ever in this series?), so I cannot say for certain how much things changed. I gather, however, that Kurosawa was a little more nuanced and ambivalent about the subject matter, at least in regards to Kingo and his arc. It does help, I suppose, that Douglas King is not the protagonist of the book. Then again, Gondo Kingo is not quite the protagonist of the movie. Instead of merely adapting the story and throwing out what made it quintessentially of its culture, he changed the context from being an American story to a story about Americanization, like a warped mirror version of the original. The attitude towards its subject matter may not be quite as harsh as, say, the Starship Troopers movie, but…I mean, again, I have not read the book.

So, why did Kurosawa adapt the book if he disliked it so much? One reason was the kidnapping plotline. At the time, Japan had very lax kidnapping laws, which the movie referenced. I am not sure if it was quite as extreme as in the movie, but it was enough to earn the ire of Kurosawa. This movie showed the kidnapping laws to be so ineffective despite massive police involvement that the plotline takes a rather odd and somewhat questionable turn towards the end. Fortunately, Japan was in the midst of changing its kidnapping laws and this movie helped, if only indirectly…and by indirectly, I mean there were kidnappers who may have taken this movie as inspiration, which I guess led to a crackdown. So…it worked!

What else could Kurosawa liked from the book? Well, the premise of the kidnapping itself. Surely, you would risk it all for your child, but would you risk it all for someone else’s child? Someone who has no way of paying you back, let alone saving you from ruin?

Kingo does not come from wealth. He worked hard to get where he is. And, sure, he married a wealthy woman and received a dowry, but that would not have been possible had he not made something of himself before that. Given his backstory and the age of his son, we might assume that his rise started before postwar Japan’s economic recovery became noticeable. We can see that his success is due to two major factors: his pride in his work and his cutthroat ambition.

Perhaps to Kingo, wealth is not the end goal, but a sign of validation for his achievements. His life, his success, and his money are all interconnected, though not always in sync. He would probably gain more money and status if he went along with the plan to oust the president. But it would come at the expense of the principles that got him where he is and tarnish his notion that he earned his place in society. So, he risks what he had earned to both protect what he has and to achieve even more. It is only when his son and inheritor of his hard-earned success is threatened that he reassesses the purpose of his money, and then he regresses when he realizes that it is merely the son of his employee who is in danger.

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In a movie full of good guys and bad guys, Kingo is a jerk. The police want him to pay the money, his wife wants him to pay the money, his chauffeur begs him to pay the money, his son wants his friend back. The only person who does not want him to pay is the cold-hearted and ultimately treacherous Kawanishi. He claims to fear slipping back into poverty, not for himself, but for his wife and son who never knew poverty. Yet it is wounded pride that is on display, along with a dash of greed. When he refuses to pay, his body shakes, it could be out of righteous rage, but there is most likely a mix of guilt and shame in there as well. Then he walks away from others, as if he is trying to escape their judgment to be alone in his wrongness.

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At the same time, those who tell him to do the right thing either are not the ones throwing their futures or have no idea what throwing their futures away would entail. And why Kawanishi anyways? After all, did he not do everything right? He came from nothing and worked his way up. He invested wisely. He transitioned from an expert worker to a benevolent boss. His only enemies are other rich people, rich people who could probably easily afford to pay 50-million yen. He does not live on top of the hill simply to thumb his nose at the poor people below. He runs the factory. He needs to be close. He interacts with the poor every day. The hill is not a dividing line, but a tether to his past. The other executives probably live in bigger houses far away from the downtrodden. They have utter contempt for the people, Kingo is a man of the people. He should be an inspiration, not a target; can’t they see that? Can’t Aoki see that? This is not merely a means to steal his money, but an attack on his place in society, an attack on his manhood, an attack on his worth. Without the money as a signifier of his success, then that would mean that he is no good in the eyes of society and of himself.

This mess of conflicting and contradicting attitudes may have represented how Kurosawa felt about himself. It is theorized that Kurosawa and Mifune had a falling out during the production of Red Beard two years later because Kurosawa could not tolerate Mifune’s need to work on other projects during that time, especially ones that Kurosawa considered to be inferior, while Mifune thought that Kurosawa’s stringent demands were harming his financial prospects. I don’t know whether this is true or who was in the right if it was true, but just look at Mifune’s filmography; he was a busy man. In any case, High and Low would be the penultimate film that they made together. Did Kurosawa ultimately consider Mifune to be the Kawanishi to his Gondo? Who knows?

Kingo may also represent Kurosawa’s ambivalence towards the changing society, particularly the Western influences. Of course, film is a Western invention, but Kurosawa had been seen as a filmmaker with more Western sensibilities when compared to someone like Yasujirō Ozu. And of course, Kurosawa was pretty open about his inspiration from Western literature and films, an inspiration that was reciprocated. Yet, this inspiration came with caution. What is being lost in this mass adoption of Western ways?

To an extent, Westernization began long before Kurosawa’s time, back when Commodore Matthew Perry forcefully opened up Japan to the world in the 1850s and the ruling classes saw that the utter humiliation that befell China in the previous decade could befall Japan if something was not done immediately. But after 1945, the context of Westernization was not of staving off defeat, but surviving defeat while under Western occupation. Surely, the gratitude of a defeated nation to being treated so well by the victors must have been countered by anger over injustices committed by the foreign occupiers, resentment over this happening in the first place, and resignation over the fact that it could not be helped.

Kurosawa began his film career in the middle of the war and his movies tended to, either deliberately or subconsciously, reflect the times of Japan. This movie was about Japan’s economic recovery and of the gaps in that system. Certainly, Kingo and his counterparts in the shoe company have benefited from it, as have the people who buy their products. But, obviously, not everyone has. While some may see Kingo’s house an the hill as an aspirational inspiration, others may see it as an insult to their own hard work and rejected potential. While Kurosawa had no sympathy for kidnappers, he tried to display a bit of understanding of the circumstances that my lead someone down such a dark path.

Kurosawa may have had Leftist tendencies in his youth, but he also seemed to have an affinity for the era of the Samurai. His movies were often struggling to reconcile the uglier side of those times with an ideal that probably never existed and maybe was never even considered. There may not have been much principle or honor or justice or benevolence, but the potential was there if one can find it. Maybe. The benefit of the doubt given to the past is replaced with just doubt for the present. Money may have helped a lord retain power in the past, but the Western corporate capitalist system has fused money with power, with accumulating more as being the only goal. Kingo’s comment that there are other people richer than he is just an excuse for him to continue his quest to climb over people, just as the poor might climb over each other. He may consider himself a modern day daimyo with Kawanishi his valiant samurai and Aoki his loyal servant, but maybe he is just lying to himself to rationalize what he is. His life is fully westernized, from the shoes that he creates to the clothes that he wears to the games that his son plays to the city below that is overflowing with American cultural signifiers as well as Americans. And just look at that house. Is there anything in there that hints at it being in Japan? Practically, the only sign of Japanese-ness in his daily life are the kimonos that Reiko wears. Reiko, who was already wealthy, maybe she came from old money, perhaps an actual aristocratic family steeped in high Japanese tradition. Reiko, who embodies all that is good and proper in Japanese womanhood while being unafraid to repeatedly stand up to her brash and abrasive husband in private and in front of everyone. She may be naïve to the capitalist realities of the present, but maybe she is the one true tether to a Japan that once was and could still be. A real original concept there, Akira.

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Speaking of that house, you may have noticed that all of the images in this article take place in the house. That is because, with a couple of exceptions, the entire first part of the movie takes place in that house, primarily in the living room and the front entrance. The movie was so consistent with being in that area that I wondered if this movie was originally meant to be a stage play. Well, no; definitely not. Or maybe it was, but the movie would soon break out of that in glorious fashion. The living room and the house in general is supposed to represent the Heavenly half of Heaven and Hell. But the movie does not allow us to bask in its glory. The opening shots of Yokohama could be showing Kingo looking over his fiefdom before being dragged into some scheme by The Three Angels of Greed. So, already, there is a violation of this Heaven, even as it turns out that Kingo had been anticipating this violation. When the kidnapping occurs and the police arrive, the house, and particularly the living room, because a bustling place, not completely unlike the Hell that is the city. When people crowd around Kingo, this huge room can somehow seem confining and claustrophobic. When people spread out, the size of the room can emphasize the distance from each other, especially when Kingo is stuck in a corner. And when Kingo is left alone, the size of the room shows how lost he is.

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While this may have been one of the less discussed Kurosawa-Mifune works, it has experienced a bit of a resurgence as of late due to Bong Joon-ho citing it as an influence for his movie Parasite. And…yes, there are similarities, but I would say that the similarities are more in the overarching themes and the minute details than in story beats or characters. There is the fancy modern house being its own character, there is the ambivalence towards this obsession with America that gets passed down towards how the children play, there is the implication that an economic rise that benefits only some can lead to societal problems, there is the wealth gap displayed visually by verticality, there is thethere is the splitting of the movie into two halves, there is…uh…crime committed against the urban wealthy by someone of lower means in the city…there is a driver…there is a lawn. Okay, there are probably many things that connect the two movies, but each is its own thing.

Erm…yeah, that’s it. Happy birthday, Toshiro Mifune.

 

 

 

WTF ASIA 103: Spacked Out (Hong Kong: 2000, approx. 90 minutes)

Wikipedia

Erm…well…this is on Youtube, but the video length is misleading and you will need to get subtitles from somewhere else if you do not understand Cantonese.

 

WTF ASIA 104: Miss Baek (South Korea: 2018, approx. 98 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in the United States and…um…I don’t know, maybe a few other countries