‘Parasite’ depicts bitter class conflict, circa 2020 (decolorized)

Monday, February 24, 2020 - 2:37pm

NOSELL

Neon

92 years after the creation of the Academy Awards, the acclaimed South Korean film “Parasite” made history as the first non-English language film to take home Best Picture (in addition to Best International Feature, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, a sweeping victory that ties Bong Joon-ho, “Memories of Murder” director, with Walt Disney for most Oscars won by a single person in a single night). To the delight of fans, “Parasite” was re-released in theaters across the U.S., with distributor Neon hoping to capitalize on the inevitable surge in interest that follows any Best Picture winner, let alone one of such historicity.

Alongside this re-release is the special opportunity to see “Parasite” in a brand-new, yet old-fashioned manner: Neon has greenlit the release of a black-and-white version of the film, done on the special request of Bong. Some might scoff at this practice — at one point it was all the rage to colorize old films, and now we’ve reached the point where we’re decolorizing new films. But this trick isn’t completely novel, having been done by recent films such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) — a movie which director Bong has declared himself a big fan of — in addition to Bong’s own film “Mother” (2009) back in 2013.

So what’s the point? It isn’t some creative choice vital to the artistic vision of the film; “Parasite” wasn’t made with a monochrome palette in mind, unlike 2019’s Best Foreign Language Film winner “Roma” (2018). In an interview at the black-and-white film’s premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival, director Bong explains how he, his director of photography and the film’s colorist had to go back over each frame and correct grading in order to make it look pristine. No, the answer is not so auteurist, but it’s still a matter of personal vision — in the same interview, Bong explains that part of the decision to decolorize was simple vanity, a sort of childhood wish fulfillment. To him, many of the classics are black-and-white, so why not make his crown jewel project a little more classic?

Casting the world in grayscale didn’t magically transform the film into some new creature; it’s still “Parasite,” with all the same thrills and laughs and gasps. This was my third viewing of the film, and it remained as powerful as my first, and that’s thanks to the masterful direction, writing and performances — elements that unsurprisingly proved stronger than the realism that color adds. 

But the decolorization does have its consequences, and some of these effects were delightfully appropriate to the film’s portrayal of class conflict. With only white and black and the grays in-between, the contrast between the affluent Parks and the crafty but low-on-cash Kims is substantively starker (the film’s promotional materials, with black or white bars placed over the eyes of both families, comes to mind). The palatial home of the Parks is all the brighter, with the glass walls and wide windows letting in buckets of whitewashing light. While the affluent are graced with lighter tones, the Kim sub-basement home is noticeably drearier, the dim light beam that leaks in from the narrow window feeble in contrast to all the deep gray that surrounds it. Without the distraction of color, movement and performance became more important, the sound of Min’s feet sticking to the unclean Kim home floor becoming distinct. All these elements were there in the color film, but in the monochromatic makeover they are underscored and augmented.

Other aspects of the film are more or less in line with Bong’s aspirational musings. He’d be happy to hear that being black-and-white did lend “Parasite” a slightly more old-timey, prestigious feel. At the same time, the image quality was anachronistically clear and well-defined, lacking the grainy texture and slight haziness endemic to that era. This visual discordance isn’t a nuisance though — in fact, it imbued the film with something of a timeless quality. Despite being set in and specific to Seoul, “Parasite” has resonated with audiences across the world.In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death., Bong himself credits this to the fact that “essentially, we all live in the same country: Capitalism.” The strangely classic yet modern feel of the film made it all the more universal.