Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic masterpiece Parasite debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, and made waves across the globe after its general release, leading to wins at the Oscars and SAG Awards. Its sensationalism is rooted in its genre-defying screenplay, technical filmmaking brilliance and stellar cast. Bong also made headlines when he reiterated that English-speaking countries would have their eyes opened to a whole new world of cinema if they could “get over” the barrier of subtitles. It was soon announced, after Curzon gained distribution of Parasite, that there were murmers of a black and white release. In January 2020, The Hollywood Reporter revealed all, where it was discovered that this new cut was made before the full-colour original, which itself has mesmerising textures within its cinematography. So, what makes this unusual and unique edition of such an iconic film so different?
The idea of a film being in black and white conjures up the feeling of nostalgia and the past, back to a time which was thought to be the golden age of movies. In contemporary cinema, shooting in 35mm film or the decision to shoot in black and white has a purposeful intent, and is intrinsically linked to the heart of the story. This has been done to great effect in Parasite, with Bong offering up the idea that having his film in black and white would allow his work to be considered a “classic.” This actually feels like an endearing and honest decision — to grow up loving old cinema and wanting to create art that reflects a crucial part of his life. The Parasite story may be familiar by now, however the chromatic version shines a light on miniscule, essential details that aren’t as prominent in the original.
The opening minutes of the original film highlight the detailed use of lighting. In this colour-less version, the contrast of dark walls against the daylight from the windows reveals the architectural decisions of the homes — which have their own interpreted metaphors of wealth — yet Bong’s use of lighting confirms this even more. Production designer Lee Ha-jun had the Kim’s basement apartment set below street level, with the dusty windows allowing some light to seep in, but this is the only natural source in the room. It accentuates the darkness of their home which is hidden out of sight, and — for many who walk past — out of mind. Their living conditions feel bleak in the basement, and space starts to shrink as the fumigation smoke billows in while they crouch on the floor to fold pizza boxes. In comparison, the Park’s abode is positioned above street level, lined with crystal white walls, and glass window interiors which allow natural light to flood into every crevice. It expresses how innocent the Park family feels in their life, with the immaculate state of their home being a metaphor for how their entitlement allows them to ignore the dirt of the streets and the people below them. This initial choice to have each family home positioned in the light or shadow links to the idea that what people cannot see does not concern them. The class divide in Parasite is simply black and white; viewers can’t ignore the reality of the divide in living conditions and quality of life.
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Many directors sit in on the grading process with their DOP’s, and Bong has mentioned that his was part of the process for Parasite. In both versions, it is the most minute details that have the largest roles to play. As mentioned, the impact of the use of black and white is minimal in the first half of the film but not entirely obsolete. Many of the intimate discussions between the two families, and within the families themselves, happen at the kitchen island. The overhead lamps create a spotlight on the two characters, as if putting them under close observation. This is first noticeable when Ki-woo is being questioned by Yeon-kyo about becoming her daughter’s tutor. Later on, she then sits with Ki-jung to discuss her employment as an art tutor — when looking at Da-song’s painting, the harsh illumination of their faces demonstrates the unflinching intention of the Kim family to pull off this scheme. This design from the production team is more evident in the black and white edition, as the darkness of the house becomes eerily large, and the Kim family are put under this stage spotlight where they must execute a perfect performance. As Ki-Jung blows flecks of fuzz from the peach, the way these particles glitter feels dreamlike, with the fruit positioned as the most innocent-looking poison. Even the flecks on the razor blade become more prominently sinister; the final act of their plan that will trigger a devastating chain of events. It feels almost magical at this stage — the way their plan flows and the brightness of the sunlight coats the film in an indulgent glow. It is not just the visual details that become more focal, but also the warped tension of the soundtrack. With the simplified palette, removing the allure of colour, the viewer’s attention veers towards the music that paces the story. For example, when Ki-taek drives Yeon-kyo home and plants the hot sauce in the bin, the brightness of the “blood” stain isn’t visible, and so the senses focus on the pounding richness of the concerto that builds to the climax of finding the tissue. Every sound begins to feel unexpectedly loud and more disconcerting in every scene. In Michelle Park’s article “The Aesthetics and Psychology Behind Horror Films,” she states that “Sound designers use different sound effects such as animal cries to express fear and distress to the audience […] The abrupt amplitude fluctuation heightens the intensity of moments of horror.” This perfectly encapsulates how Parasite uses the aesthetic subtlety of black and white visuals to heighten the intensity of the horror soundtrack.
After the housekeeper is kicked out, the second act starts to strike up, and everything begins to feel a shade darker, as there is an increase of scenes at night and the darkness of the house. The influence of the horror genre becomes more defined, and the sheer brutality of Bong’s vision is revealed. The entrance to the basement has always had an air of mystery, but the contrast becomes even bolder as this pitch black rectangle of the entrance looks like a bottomless pit. As viewers later discover, down there lives the souls of those who move silently in the night. When the rain begins to fall after the Kim family escape, the film begins to feel more claustrophobic as the unrelenting cascade of water drenches everything in sight. Once they stop at the bottom of the stairs, Ki-jung turns to her father and asks about what happens now. Their faces are lit by the streetlamps, with their soaked hair sticking to their faces like leeches as they struggle to see through the rain, emphasizing that their way out of the situation has become as blurred as the hailing skies. However, it’s once they reach the house that another element of the class divide becomes more obviously revealed. Back in the Park’s hidden cellar, Moon-gwang vomits into the toilet, concussed and having an allergic reaction to the peach shoved in her face by Ki-jung, who is back in the house trying to close the lid of her own toilet that is spewing up sewage water. The bursting liquid is dirty and looks almost tar-like against the white ceramic bowl, as if the stomach contents of Moon-gwag are regurgitating into the Kim’s semi-basement, which feels almost like an omen. Another simultaneous parallel is when Oh Geun-sae smashes his bloodied head into the switch while trying to replicate morse code — there’s a flickering pattern in the Park house, and the lights in the Kim house begin to short circuit from the rain. In the original film, the focus centers around the frenzy of the moment. In the black and white version, it is the lighting that speaks the most. Both the homes are being destroyed, in desperation and despair.
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As the climax of the story comes into play, there are a few more noteworthy scenes that reap the benefits of having the colour palette simplified. When Ki-woo heads into the cellar to make amends, Oh Geun-sae creeps up behind him with the ring of wire to collar his neck, with the silver of the metal glistening in the dark like a halo. Once again, it is the contrast of the wire to the naked LED bars that make this symbolism more apparent. This continues moments later, after Ki-woo has his skull bashed in with the scholar stone, with the blood from his head and the clear plum juice congealing on the floor. The continuing spread of liquid fruit and blood is horrifying, as the juice also turns out to be the last supper of Oh Geun-sae before his own demise. It is only in this black and white edition where the bubbling of the juice becomes more apparent. The film then fully enters the outdoor light, and chaos erupts from various attacks on different characters. The chromatic contrast is even more startling when the blood from a stabbing splatters the Park family’s crisp white table cloths. The pooling stains on their possessions are like memories from the darkness, and the Parks are finally unable to escape the messy existence of those around them.
These tiny details underline the inherent horror, and concur with the genre-defying essence of the story. By the end, the falling snow shows the landscape being coated in white for the first time, and the darkness begins to fade into the trees. As Ki-woo climbs the hill, he sees the lone bulb in the house flashing, a final candle in the night from his lost father. The whiteness of the snow is just as much a mask as the depth of the night, and Ki-woo starts to become lost in the snow himself, buried under this final flurry of ice. This moment feels forever frozen, and much more impactful than the color version. It’s the first time viewers see a depiction of individual isolation, as Ki-woo is cut off from the world because of his decisions, despite his intentions of being good. The future is bleak, but he retains hope that he will eventually unite what is left of his family. Bong created something incredibly special when he made Parasite, and this chromatic version holds many more painful secrets that he chooses to share; the darkness of this tale feels like a much harder pill to swallow. While the original film is likely to stand the test of time, the black and white edition of Parasite is a gift, and the real beacon shining brightly in the dark.
Elle Haywood (@ellekhaywood) is a freelance film/culture writer, festival juror and submissions reviewer. She is currently an Associate Editor at Take One and studying a Masters at the National Film & Television School. Her work specialises in international festivals focusing on Scandinavia and Western Europe, sociopolitical events and independent filmmaking.