There is an “official” black and white version of PARASITE. It’s a better movie that the color version.
I don’t say that lightly. Bong Joon-Ho’s PARASITE was one of the best movies I had seen in a long, long time. I had never seen anything quite like it.
Up until a couple of months ago, I didn’t even know a black and white version existed. I came across a poster for its premier at the Rotterdam Film Festival. I finally got to see it courtesy of the Criterion Blu-Ray released at the end of October. The two disc set includes one full dvd dedicated exclusively to the black and white version.
So, why is the black and white version of PARASITE a better movie than the color release?
It comes down to a couple of things. The first is that your eye is not directed toward the key action like it is in the original. It’s a film of luxurious, subtle images of gray. It is pretty, to be sure. But that’s not really the point.
The point is that rather than being focused exclusively on the key action of the scene, your eye absorbs the entire frame. And there is a tremendous amount of context and power in those frames.
Settings such as the rich families vast, austere, Modernist house with its emphasis on light and space contrast even further with the cramped, dark, cluttered warrens of the main characters’ semi-basement apartment. They are two completely different worlds.
The viewer is shown more clearly when space and light are available. More importantly they are reminded of who is and who isn’t entitled to it.
The subtleness of the black and white also allows background actions to become more integrated into the frame. Which, almost counter-intuitively, makes those actions less distracting.
There are two examples of this that really stand out for me regarding this, both from earlier parts of the film. The first is when the rich family’s faux-genius young song is playing with his bow and arrow. In the color version, this moment captured the viewers entire attention. In the black and white version, exactly the same physical things takes place. However, because it is allowed to integrate into the frame it feels far less jarring.
The second example is when one of the main characters is looking out the window at the maid trying to awaken the rich wife. She is at a small table outside and seems comatose the the point that the maid has to clap her hands in the woman’s sleeping face to awaken her.
In the color version this is a moment of slapstick. The same exact thing takes place in the black and white version yet feels entirely different. It’s still funny but no longer in a sit-com joke sort of way. It is equally as strange as it is amusing.
Which leads to the second big reason the black and white version of PARASITE is better. The tone of the whole movie is more balanced.
Bong Joon-Ho has always played with mixing black comedy and tragedy. Even a deeply disturbing film like MEMORIES OF MURDER or MOTHER have moments of comedy in them. PARASITE is no different.
However, the black and white version makes the jokes feel a little less jokey. The humor is still there but more contained and more natural. It’s also more painful.
Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in the last third of the film. The poor family has tricked its away into being allowed a few moments of experiencing the world as those with money do. They have abundant, expensive food. They have room to lounge about carelessly. They have the simple, but exclusive, pleasure of laying in a yard and feeling sunlight on their faces.
All of which is taken away. They are chased out of the house that is not theirs into the driving rain. A rain which has flooded and taken what little they owned. Their moment of pretending that they are something they are not is quickly and completely shattered.
Those scenes of the family fleeing into the rainy night and descending from the heights of the privileged down further and further into the world they are condemned to are no longer funny but truly sad and disturbing.
For that matter, the black and white images of the family along with hundreds of others seeking refuge in a shelter takes on a weight that just wasn’t there in the color version.
It all just feels different in black and white.
The black and white images allow for much more nuance. Quiet moments which might have been missed are no longer drowned out by bold colors and bright light. They are allowed the room needed to express the unspoken.
Nowhere is this change revealed more than on the faces of the actors.
Mr. Park, the wealthy business man, comes across as even more arrogant and self-entitled. His wife even more trapped in her own tiny, self-contained bubble.
Kevin, the smart, but poor, kid seems even more envious and hopeful that he will someday attain all that the Parks, and others like them, have. Yet, he knows that even with money he might still not become “one of them.”
Every member of the cast seems to have more power in their expressions and in their eyes in the black and white version.
Mr. Kim, the father, seemed the most different to me in the black and white version. In the original release, he was “fine.” In no way did he ever pull me out of the movie. Yet, in the black and white version he took on a power I simply did not expect.
His face, which almost seemed expressionless in much of the color version, now communicated the resignation of man beaten down by life in way that I wasn’t ready for. He became a central figure instead of just part of the ensemble. The man who tries to tell his envious and ambitious son not to bother to make plans because they will never come true. The man who finally explodes with anger and violence after years of repressing it.
In short, the black and white version makes it much easier to see what PARASITE is and isn’t.
It is a movie with many joyous and clever parts to it. It is also a movie with many funny parts to it. However, in the end, there is absolutely nothing funny about it.