“Parasite” B&W Edition: Film Review

While Bong Joon Ho’s spectacularly successful Parasite was collecting awards in Cannes and at the Oscars, its black & white twin was quietly waiting in the vaults – or maybe in the basement of a beautiful but foreboding modernist villa.

2020 is the year Bong Joon Ho demolished long-established assumptions: first, that so-called ‘foreign’ films can not only win Best Picture at the Oscars, but capture a whole row of the golden statuettes. Second, purism around shifting between colour and B&W is also taking a knock: the argument, always slightly fragile, that one should always see a film exactly as the makers had intended in production – whether colour or aspect ratios – has also taken a small dent.  Perhaps it is enough to be aware of the initial intention, and to have the option to access to it, but beyond that, to accept that the fate of a film quickly escapes its progenitor.

Why create a black & white version of a colour film? Perhaps simply because it was possible.  And why see it, if one has already seen the original, in glorious, lustrous colour? In the case of Parasite, because the same film is also a different film, and the experience of revisiting it makes one also reconsider all other black & white films, and maybe even all other films from ‘elsewhere’.

In 2018, the digital colourist Marina Amaral presented to the world a remarkable image – a colour version of Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Powell, a co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

It is an image that is haunting because of its modernity. The long ago becomes the present, the veil that separates us from the past dissolves.  And when that is seen, it can no longer be unseen. In the same way, seeing Parasite in both colour and black & white changes the way one can look at other black & white films – no longer a signifier of the past or of heightened aesthetics, but rather the pointer to other elements of a film – underlying elements that come to the surface – mood, music, composition. In the case of Parasite, the essence of the story is distilled and revealed.

The fateful birthday party - Bong Joon Ho's Parasite Black and White Edition

Stripped of the distraction of colours, the images reveal what was always there – the starkness of lines, and a far more sombre mood.  Parasite is a film composed entirely of strong lines, often dividing lines, and long perspectives.

The bare bones of the rich people’s house at the centre of the film, object of desire but also inflicter of punishment, become apparent. The sparseness of the living spaces, the surreal, absurd layout of the sub-basement which is mirrored by the L-shapes and long narrow corridor of the film’s heroes’ home, the poorer family, grifters living in hope.  And when that poorer family finds itself in the street, bedraggled in the rain, the shift from colour to black & white image shifts the story from acerbic tragi-comedy to something else – from entertainment to authentic emotion.  

The music too, seems to feel more noticeable, more part of the story, but it is more difficult to attribute with any certainty whether this is due to the repeat viewing effect or new perspectives triggered by visual difference.

Some viewers had commented on the ambiguity of the colour version of Parasite, that as a social critique it was still deeply anchored in its position of privilege, that its Hitchcockian irony blunted its blade. One would assume that the black & white aesthetics would amplify that sense of arch irony. It turns out the black & white version undoes that to a good degree. And in turn, watching now old B&W Korean films feels very different – less other, and more present. Time for new discoveries.

Read our review of Parasite – the colour version – here.

Director Bong Joon Ho
Writers Bong Joon Ho Bong, Han Jin Won
DoP Hong Kyung Pyo
Cast Song Kang Ho, Jo Yeo Jeong, Park So Dam, Choi Woo Sik, Lee Sun Kyun

Interested in another fabulously black & white cinematic rendition of class warfare?  See The Servant on DVD or on Amazon Prime / Mubi.

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