There’s a moment in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary about Robert Crumb when the cartoonist leans over his teenage son, tweaks the colour on TV so the film he’s watching becomes black and white, and says: “There! Isn’t that better?”
Maybe. Audiences might be wary of special black and white presentations of new movies. Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning Parasite is now getting this treatment, which in 2016 was also conferred on Mad Max: Fury Road with a “black and chrome” edition.
Is this “luxury arthouse” monochrome experience a genuine way of enhancing or adding to the film? Or merely a snob marketing ploy, gouging repeat box-office business from an existing fanbase on the fallacious assumption that black and white is somehow classier and more artistic than colour? Would anyone for example, dare offer a colourised version of a new black-and-white movie? Roger Deakins shot the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There on colour film stock and then corrected it to black and white. Perhaps it is possible to show that in colour. But would it find favour on the same basis? I remember the old colourisation debate from the 1970s, when my parents’ old black and white TV was incidentally offering a connoisseur’s monochrome presentation of The Wizard Of Oz and also of BBC Two’s Pot Black, with the snooker balls in exquisitely nuanced gunmetal shades.
It does have to be said that there is a real fascination in seeing Parasite through the monochrome lens, and it has a certain crystalline beauty – but then it did in colour. It’s invigorating to see this tremendous film again on any basis, in a way that goes some way to restoring the shock of the new. At the Berlin film festival last month, an industry executive asked me if I thought black and white would help Parasite’s CGI effects. After a short pause, she had to break it to me that those fierce colours in the garden were not entirely natural and nobody was falling down the cellar stairs for real.
So here we are again, with the cheeky Fagin-style charlatan family – loafer dad (Song Kang-ho), grumpy mum (Chang Hyae-jin), moody teen son (Choi Woo-sik) and smart daughter (Park So-dam) – living in a squalid semi-basement flat and sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rich. When the son is engaged as a tutor for a rich kid (Jung Ji-so) from a privileged family who live in a colossal modernist house in the posh part of town, he sees how he can get his entire clan employed there too, pretending to be unrelated strangers. The daughter gets to tutor the kid brother (Jung Hyun-jun) in art, the mum ousts the existing housekeeper and the dad takes over the driver’s job. And all the time, the naïve mistress of the house (Cho Yeo-chong) and her overworked husband Mr Park (Lee Syun-kun) get the wool pulled over their eyes, until everyone realises that another terrifying trick is being played on all of them.
Bong has said the advantage of black and white is that it allows the performances to come across more strongly. For me, that isn’t quite it. The performances came across quite superbly enough in colour – the monochrome advantages and disadvantages lie elsewhere. In the opening section of the film, seeing the family’s scuzzy and ineffably yucky flat in black-and-white gives it an intriguingly kitchen-sinky, Brit social-realist look that it didn’t have before, especially when the son and daughter hunch together over that nasty lavatory that is raised on to the flat’s chaotic “mezzanine” level. And when the whole place is submerged in smoke from the fumigation official, the resulting fog is hilariously stylised, as if Nosferatu is going to emerge from the mist.
And in fact, when all their con-trick shenanigans start to kick off in earnest, the black-and-white Parasite emphasises another Brit dimension that I’d only vaguely sensed from the original: an Ealing comedy.
It’s when the action moves to the wealthy household that things become less satisfying. We don’t see the house’s magnificent decor in all its richness and out in the garden, the vivid blue of the sky and rich green of the grass are no longer. When violence erupts, the splashes of blood are less overtly shocking in grey. (But then this is why Scorsese preferred Raging Bull in black and white.)
Yet it is too reductive to say that only the “lower-class” parts of Parasite are better in black and white. Monochrome gives something very elegant to the Park family’s illuminated glass crockery cabinets positioned either side of the cellar door, replaced later with wine bottles and glasses. And there is something very queasy and dreamlike in seeing the final bloodbath in black and white. It’s a different sort of queasiness and dreaminess than the colour version … but not necessarily better.
There is something very startling about this specialist monochrome-flavour version of Parasite. It gave me a renewed appetite to watch the film all over again. In colour.
•Parasite: Black & White Version screens on 5 March at the Glasgow film festival, and is released in the UK on 3 April
Source: The Guardian