Rediscovering 'Parasite' in Black & White at the Rotterdam Film Festival
by Forrest Cardamenis
January 31, 2020
Bong Joon-ho's Parasite is virtually certain to win the Oscar for Best International Film, and it is not out of the running for Best Picture or Best Director, either. It unanimously won Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and critics has lauded it as the greatest film of an exceptionally strong year, and perhaps even one of the best of the decade. It has brought belated, much-deserved attention to South Korean Cinema. By any measure, it has been a success that has likely exceeded the wildest dreams of anyone associated with it. What, then, should be made of the existence of a black & white version set for a theatrical release this year?
The monochrome cut received its international premiere at the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam, and perhaps the most important and immediately noticeable thing about it is that it works, at least for the most part. Exteriors and shots looking out the basement windows of the Kim family suffer slightly; the same lack of shadows that look so great in color photography feel emptier than they ought when converted, and occasionally a fuller palette is essential for depth perception, meaning deep space shots and alleyways look a bit muddled, but much of Parasite makes use of hard-edge lighting that converts well to black & white, and there can be little doubt Bong made a point of color correcting every shot for maximum effectiveness.
And it is effective. Color aside, re-watching Parasite at IFFR was a pleasure that reinforced the excellence of the film's script, which, from the beginning, lays out all the character information for the viewer in ways that can only be appreciated on a second pass and manages to foreshadow each development with nary a heavy hand. The black and white component, meanwhile, was realized even before the Cannes premiere, so it isn't fair to call it a cash-in devoid of artistic consideration. Bong himself has called out the differences. He has been quoted saying, "I watched the black & white version twice now, and at times the film felt more like a fable and gave me the strange sense that I was watching a story from old times" and that this version is "more realistic and sharp."
Both of Bong's points are aligned with expectations. The cinematic history of B&W has given it two primary connotations. Depending on its use, it can play up feelings of nostalgia and oldness or of grit and realism. When color cinematography was first invented, its expense made it rare, and it was usually reserved for big-budget fantasies and epics—think The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind—while noirs and drama stuck primarily with monochrome stock. With the growing ubiquity of the black & white television in the home during the 1950s, epics and sword-and-sandal films became more common, and color (and CinemaScope) became a way of differentiating cinema from television, eventually becoming the standard. Black & White, in turn, became a way of imaging a bygone era, though other artistic deployments by independent and arthouse directors kept the gritty connotations alive, so much so that Michael Haneke decided to shoot The White Ribbon in color but release it in black & white (perhaps more directors seeking a Palme d'Or should consider straddling the line between the two forms).
History and cliché hold true with the B&W Parasite. The film is much grimmer with the color drained away; the audience seemed reluctant to laugh at the same moments that threatened to bring the house down the first time around, as if the new sheen demanded something different from the viewer. The vibrant colors and sunlight coming in from the windows give the Park family mansion an idealistic, almost fairy-tale like quality. To witness, then, a saturated splotch of red on a "bloodied" napkin be so incriminating takes that quality to the point of absurdity. The bright colors of the peaches that the housekeeper reacts so violently to, as well as Da-hye's fondness for the festively colored fruit, lends a dark humor in the color original that is missing in monochrome, where peach fuzz becomes an almost unidentifiable poison. Everything, as Mrs. Park might say, is "deadly serious."
After watching Parasite for the first time, the bright sunshine in the yard of the Park home as Ki-woo reads his letter to his father is vivid and memorable, almost overshadowing the cut back to reality that follows it. The same sequence in black & white cannot help but underscore the falseness and the uselessness of Ki-woo's dreams; suddenly the hints throughout the film—that he will go to university, that he's qualified as a tutor, that he himself has demonstrated the "vigor" needed to succeed on exams—are not hints of hope but notes of tragic irony. The unraveling that begins when the Park family heads out on their camping trip is similarly stark, playing less like a rupture or break from what came before and more like a moment of self-sabotage or fatalistic inevitability for which the Kim family must be banished once more to the basement.
The "oldness" Bong speaks of is less evident in a film that gives prominent screen time to cell phones and discussions of wi-fi, but if it feels like a fable, it could be because the film's class war overtones reverberate through the past to the present day around the globe. "When you put our four salaries together, the amount of cash flowing from their family to ours is immense," Mr. Kim gleefully observes to the delight of the class warriors in the audience, a bit of redistribution that is unjust only insofar as it does not go far enough. It hardly differs from the justifications offered by characters such as Bonnie & Clyde, Jesse James, and Robin Hood in countless earlier films. The setting may be new, but to call this "a story from old times" requires only historical awareness and a little imagination.
Yet, Parasite is not unique in its post-release black & white treatment. Both Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road included such cuts on their home video releases, and going further back, Frank Darabont's The Mist and Bong's own film Mother received similar treatment. On some occasions, one might suspect these films have something to prove: they are not "merely" entertainment or blockbusters, but carefully made films with artistic merits, where the perceived seriousness and artistic merit of a black & white presentation is a way of convincing skeptics and reassuring insecure fans.
Taken alongside another recent trend, however, the re-edited theatrical re-release / expansion (such as the one that propelled Avengers: Endgame past Avatar for the top-spot on the unadjusted box-office gross chart, or the ones that gave a modest bump to Midsommar and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), it's hard not to see an industry that is desperately clinging to relevance doing whatever it can to pad its profits and prove that they do, in fact, still make them like they used to, glorious black & white and all. How ironic that as the renewed threat to make the movies obsolete ramp up in a never-ending (but perhaps revitalized) "Golden Age" of Television, the movies turn back to black & white, not only for art-house fare like Roma and The Lighthouse, but also for hits like Parasite, Mad Max, and Logan.
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