Director – Bong Joon Ho – 2019 – South Korea – Cert. 15 – 132m
It’s a safe bet that as anyone going to see the black & white edition of Parasite has already seen the colour version. Possibly several times, as it seems to be a movie in which you see new things with each viewing. In my case, I’ve already reviewed it twice (for two different publications). This review assumes you’ve already seen the colour version. If you haven’t, start with one of those reviews then see the colour version first.
So the big question is, is the black & white edition a waste of space where you’re watching the film drained of its colour and wondering why you bothered? Or does it add something to viewing the film?
The answer happily is the latter.
I must admit I struggled with the opening scenes in the Kims’ basement flat. The street seen through the window seemed to emphasise length and distance more, but somehow watching black & white takes you back to an earlier period, say film noir in the fifties, and to see the son Kim Ki-woo hunting around for a hackable wi-fi signal with his mobile held aloft jarred with that. (More about black & white and mobiles later. Not all of it negative either.)
I also noticed the stink bugs were less visually distinct than in colour.
Not a good start, really.
The sense of distance is heightened early on when Ki-woo talks to his friend Min. Even more so when Ki-woo starts climbing the hill to the Park residence. The less cluttered street. The sense of space, order, tidiness. This is all there in the colour version, but the black & white emphasises the starkness.
Compare the interiors of the two homes. The Kims’ cramped basement flat is cluttered. The Parks’ luxury home is spacious and, because they have a housekeeper tidying up after them as they go, uncluttered. These are direct functions of their comparative income levels.
When the Kims relax illicitly in the Park residence while the Parks are away on their camping trip, the Kims don’t have a housekeeper so the rubbish starts to pile up in the living room space as they binge on food and drink. When later the Park adults sleep on the sofa, they are awakened by their son in his garden teepee and are lit up as his message comes in. where’s the light coming from? It’s their son’s tent, lighting up from the inside.
So then you hit the scene where the Kims flee from the Park home in torrential rain and make their way back to their flooded basement flat. In the regular colour version, you’re very much aware of the space of the rich residence and the descent into the poor”s environment of chaotic clutter. Akira Kurosawa’s thriller High And Low (1963) [streaming on BFI Player / extended free trial offer here] achieves much the same thing with its rich industrialist living in a mansion on a hill above a squalid town teeming with poor lowlife – and THAT film was shot in black & white.
The period when physical black & white film stock was cheaper than its colour counterpart and therefore more widely used was decades ahead of the arrival of mobile smartphones. A strange dislocation takes place in the black & white Parasite whenever a character uses a smartphone – which they do a lot – which makes the viewer think of the present day. At the same time, the black & white takes her / him back to a previous period.
Something else happens too if you see it in black & white. With no colour to distract from the range of blacks, greys and whites on offer, a mobile phone’s screen coming on is much more prominent, so the viewer notices it more and it becomes a stronger element within the narrative. This is a big deal in Parasite because the narrative deploys mobile phones an awful lot and the film would be unthinkable without them.
In short, the black & white version of Parasite adds whole new areas of meaning to the film.
Trailer for the colour version: