Published on February 28th, 2020 | by Blake Morrow0
Parasite – Black & White Version
We look at the new black and white version of Bong Joon-Ho’s cinematic masterpiece, Parasite. Though it wasn’t designed for B&W, does it hold up?
Opening with a Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite capped off a magical awards season by winning Best Picture at the Oscars, becoming the first international film to receive the award. Centered around the impoverished Kim family conning their way to a better life through the rich Park family, the film has been universally acclaimed. A self-proclaimed fan of classical cinema, Bong premiered a black-and-white version of Parasite that has since been released in theatres. This passion project is one that is more successful than not in measuring up to the legendary films it attempts to evoke.
It should be said that Bong’s original intent for Parasite was to film in black-and-white. He eventually chose to make a colour film but has now released a monochrome version, similar to what he did with his 2009 murder-mystery Mother. Parasite is refreshingly self-contained, the comedy and madness all taking place within meticulously designed sets bursting with thematic resonance. Black-and-white does a great job emphasizing the varied textures in the locations. The gulf between the effortless, sleek perfection of the Park’s home and the gritty filth of the Kim’s semi-basement has never been more pronounced.
Stripping away the lively colours of Parasite also creates an inherent need to focus on the actors in the best performed film of the year. In this version it’s easy to see every nuance of expression, whether it’s the furrow of a brow or the bite of a lip. I was particularly stunned by Yeon-kyo, played by Cho Yeo-jeong, the matriarch of the wealthy Park family. Her eyes are especially bright and lively in this version, perfectly conveying the erratic anguish of the naïve housewife. Yeon-kyo’s character draws such a fine line between parody and plausibility, but is deftly performed in an acting masterclass.
Similar to textures in the sets, black-and-white accentuates different skin tones as well. This adds another dimension to the destitute Ki-taek, the Kim patriarch played by Song Kang-ho. In the colour version his face is noticeably red, but in black-and-white his skin comes off as being especially filthy. Trying to embed himself within the Parks, a family with perfect complexions, his dirt-stained face marks him firmly as an impostor. Already plagued with the stench of the poor, the cruel superficiality of Ki-Taek’s perceived defects make his attempts to ascend the class ladder even more tragic.
All of that being said, I believe that black-and-white is ultimately a lesser version of Parasite. Despite being conceived as a black-and-white film, the colour design in the final product was not made with that consideration. Certain story elements like paintings, hot sauces, and so on that rely on colour for their meaning completely lose their punch. Many of the sets are built using browns, greys, and yellows that, when converted to this format, almost blend together on-screen. Similar compromises happen throughout, making different hues like the sickly green of the Kim semi-basement and the lush green of the Park home indistinguishable. The storytelling lost without colour is substantial.
Another key aspect of Parasite’s cinematic language is the difference between light and dark. This is used to further separate the Parks and Kims, the rich and the poor. However, in the black-and-white version the stark contrast between light and dark is significantly muted. The thematic disparity between the semi-basement obscured in shadow and the opulent home crowned by the sun is muddled in a sea of greys. With no strong difference in light and shadow to guide me, I also found that my eyes wandered during scenes. It allowed me to see things I never would have otherwise, but it also felt like the camera lacked the directorial focus the colour version has. If Parasite had been designed from the start to be black-and-white I have no doubt it would excel in all of these areas. However, simply transitioning the film over from colour means that a lot of these elements were lost in the shuffle.
Overall, the black-and-white Parasite was still fascinating to watch. Even if the colour version is superior, the shifted perspective of the film towards performances was a refreshing change. It was a genuinely unique experience where I felt new emotions during scenes I’ve watched multiple times. It’s not difficult to imagine the black-and-white Parasite being made seventy years ago and being counted among the very best of classical cinema.