A zeitgeist-defining sensation that distilled a global reckoning over class inequality into a tour de force of pop-cinema subversion, Bong Joon Ho’s genre-scrambling black-comic thriller confirms his status as one of the world’s foremost filmmakers. Two families in Seoul—one barely scraping by in a dank semibasement in a low-lying neighborhood, the other living in luxury in a modern architectural marvel overlooking the city—find themselves on a collision course that will lay bare the dark contradictions of capitalism with shocking ferocity. A bravura showcase for its director’s meticulously constructed set pieces, bolstered by a brilliant ensemble cast and stunning production design, Parasite cemented the New Korean Cinema as a full-fledged international force when it swept almost every major prize from Cannes to the Academy Awards, where it made history as the first non-English-language film to win the Oscar for best picture.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite receives yet another edition in North America, a 2-disc special edition from The Criterion Collection. Yet again the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 with a 1080p/24hz encode, sourced from a 4K master created from the digital intermediate, which itself was sourced from the original 6.5K files. Criterion presents the film on the first dual-layer disc while also presenting the black-and-white version of the film on the second dual-layer disc.
The theatrical, colour version doesn’t look any different in comparison to what was found on the Universal disc. Filmed digitally, there are no source issues to speak of, not even digital. On my television I couldn’t detect any noise or compression artifacts, and the image is very clean. Yet again colours are gorgeous, espeically the greens found in the grass and trees around the Park’s yard, and black levels are nice and deep while still allowing for strong shadow detail, highlighted in the “basement” scenes. Detail is excellent, everything popping, even in those long shots within the household. It looked really good on the Universal disc and it still looks good here.
As to the presentation of the black-and-white version, it still delivers the details, even in the shadows, and looks to be encoded well; again, no digital anomalies stood out while watching the film. At any rate, the black and white image looks good, with excellent grayscale, strong whites (that don’t bloom) and rich blacks yet again. The only issue I had is the image ends up having a slightly waxier look, though that more than likely just comes down to this being a digital image that went through a whole digital process to get this look; digital black-and-white just has a different look from black-and-white film. Outside of that I will say they did a really good job, adjusting contrast and brightness effectively from scene to scene.
Altogether both versions look good, though there is one glaring set-back: Criterion has decided not to release the film in 4K, despite Universal having released their own 4K disc. Though it can be forgiven that Criterion hasn’t released some other titles on the format (it’s more than likely Paramount wouldn’t license The Elephant Man in 4K and it’s possible Netflix wants to hold on to the 4K versions of their films for their streaming service), their refusal to jump to the format where it appears they can is, at this point, ridiculous. Though this set has some pretty strong supplementary material on it, besting it over other editions for the film in that department by wide margin, the fact that someone would still have to buy another edition to get the best possible presentation is souring to say the least.
Criterion, at the very least, does include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack found on Universal’s 4K edition (the Universal Blu-ray provided a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track), and as a bonus they also include the same track for the black-and-white version. As far as I could tell both tracks are the same. On systems that can’t decode Atmos soundtracks there is a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 core.
My system is a 5.1.2 configuration, which is a standard 5.1 speaker set-up with 2 Atmos speakers at the front, so I didn’t get the full experience one would get with the desired 7.2.4 configuration. But even then I was fairly impressed. The sound mix isn’t as aggressive as the one found on Criterion’s release of Roma (which was stunning) but the added dimension works to add subtle street noises (when the setting is the Kim’s low-level apartment) or birds tweeting, even offering effective echos in some interior shots, like in the “basement.” Otherwise it’s more of a 5.1 (maybe 7.1) presentation, dialogue focused to the fronts, and a lot of music and effects pushed to the other speakers, including the rears, though to be fair it’s possible that if I had the two rear Atmos speakers there would have been a better effect coming from the rear channels. Otherwise, direction is excellent and movement between the speakers comes off very natural.
The mix can be a bit weird, though, and it’s the same with the 5.1 soundtrack on the Universal Blu-ray. There are some scenes where voices are coming from the rear speakers, and they’re mixed very low. This threw me off with the Universal disc and I inititally had a concern I didn’t have something configured correctly, even though I don’t recall a similar issue with any other title. Still, no matter what I did, the issue remained. Switching to a stereo configuration the voice is still mixed low, and the same goes again for this Atmos presentation. This occurs a couple of times throughout the film, and it sounds off, but I now have to assume it's intentional for the speaker to sound as though they’re at a distance.
At any rate, outside of that, it’s an effective audio presentation, delivering effective range, nicely placing the viewer in the middle of the action.
While Criterion’s A/V can be looked at as an improvement (the added Dolby Atmos track not found on the previous Universal Blu-ray) or a downgrade (no 4K presentation) the one area this release unquestionably beats out the others is in the supplements, which are plentiful and spread out over two dual-layer discs.
Criterion first provides a brand-new audio commentary featuring director Bong Joon-ho and film scholar Tony Rayns, which was recorded just after the COVID-19 lockdown had begun. Because of this the two are being recorded through the “technological marvel” (as Rayns calls it) of teleconferencing, and I must say it manages to come off seamless and natural. I assume both are both watching the film since they are following along with the action, maybe one of them sharing a screen or something of the sort, and it actually does sound like they’re both together; you end up forgetting they’re about 6000 miles apart.
Bong tells Rayns at the beginning he has talked about the film hundreds of times through interviews and panels, suggesting a sort of fatigue (and I can’t blame him), but that never shows through here. Rayns will throw out questions to Bong about various aspects of the production, from casting to set design and effects (Rayns was shocked to learn, as I was, that about half of the film had some form of CGI in it), before asking about his narrative style and influences (Bong says the narrative thrust found in Mad Max: Fury Road was a huge influence). This then leads to conversations about the addition of certain elements—like the Ram-Don dish—and what they meant in the context of the film, all of which could be lost on Western audiences. Rayns also takes the opportunity to share things he took from the film, which Bong appears to get a joy out of hearing, and talk about the common themes found in some of his other work. It’s a very energetic commentary and the two are really lost in the conversation, and they end up sounding a little disappointed when it comes to an end.
Criterion then records a number of new interviews for this edition, the first featuring Bong Joon-ho talking with critic and translator Darcy Paquet about the film. I let out a mild “ugh” when Paquet introduces the format for the 36-minute discussion, which involves him spouting out single words for Bong to respond to, relating each word to the film. The single words he throws out includes (but is not limited to) realism, stairs, architecture, colour and comic book (“comic book” is a single word in this case). Thankfully this does lead to some interesting comments from Bong, who touches on genre influences, the film’s narrative structure, Korean cinema, (The Housemaid gets special mention), the invisible use of CGI in Parasite, the design of the film’s central house, and more. We even get a staggering amount of detail about how he came to find the right colour for the flood water in one sequence.
The set-up for that interview was a bit eye-rolling, but it at least led to a strong interview with the filmmaker that expanded on details covered in the commentary track. The next three interviews, delving even deeper into the technical details of the film, feature director of photography Hong Kyung-po, production designer Le Ha-jun, and editor Yang Jinmo, running about 22-minutes, 21-minutes, and 15-minutes respectively. Through these interviews it becomes far clearer just how much of the look of the film was artificial, created using special effects. Though the house and apartment sets were built (the apartment set, including the alleys around, were built in a large water tank), a number of details outside were CGI’d in (from the trees to the second floor), with even the grass being computer generated when the weather wasn’t agreeing and destroying the lawn. The CGI also carried in to the editing since an actual second floor (and subterranean level) wasn’t actually attached to the first floor set: when characters move between floors computers were used to fuse two separate shots together to continue the flow from one floor to the next, and this was also done in that one long tracking shot going down. The computer trickery even went as far as pulling different performances from different takes and melding them into one. I knew some CGI was in this film before visiting this release, and the commentary and Bong interview expanded on this, but I still had no idea at the level of effects work that went into the film and, after listening to all of this and seeing some of the raw footage that’s presented throughout these interviews, it’s just staggering what was accomplished, even if David Fincher has done similar things. It’s so incredibly seamless and I just couldn’t tell. Even going back to the film and knowing what I know now it’s impossible to pick out any of the effects work. The work is incredible and really should be noted and praised, though as Bong points out in the commentary CGI work you can’t see doesn’t lead to accolades and awards.
The disc then closes with two trailers for the film.
The second disc then sports this release’s biggest feature, the black-and-white version of the film, which comes with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The film feels different, and in his interview on the prior disc Hong mentions that draining the colour makes the viewer focus more on the characters and less on the setting, so that may be the reason why that is the case. And though the film looks neat in black-and-white, the whole affair feels a little purposeless, especially since colour played such an important part in the original version. This one seems to just adjust brightness and contrast to try for the same effect. It ended up not being too big of a surprise when Bong, in the included 6-minute introduction (that again features Paquet), states that he made this version with no purpose outside of him simply wanting to. Though he did something similar with Mother, he just wants to make a black-and-white film and it’s really hard for him to do that because no one wants to fund such a thing. In the end I think I will say it does at the very least look good, despite a waxiness that may just be a side effect of the technology, but the film still has an interesting look here, and the subterranean sequences look pretty good. Still, I don’t see myself coming back to it. Maybe, thanks to the success of Parasite, Bong can get the funding to make a black-and-white film where the material would suit it more.
This disc then features a few more features. There’s a 12-minute segment about the New Korean Cinema featuring directors Bong and Park Chan-wook. The two give a background around how South Korean laws restricted the number films from outside of the country (in an effort to protect the industry within the country) and how when those laws eased through the years as more progressive governments came into power, it introduced the likes of Bong and Park (and many others) to many more films outside of their country, which in turn influenced their work and led to a surge successful films. It would have been great to get more filmmakers involved (though the fact that they have Park here makes me hope Criterion got him for interviews for other films), but it’s good introduction.
There are then a couple of panel discussions included. There is 29-minutes’ worth of footage from the Cannes Press Conference for the film, featuring Bong and the film’s five primary actors answering questions. The translating here is a little sketchy as seems the English translator disappears for a short spell, and there are no subtitles to fill in. There is then 82-minutes’ worth of footage from a Lumière Master Class, featuring Bong in discussion with Bertrand Tavernier. This was good, and it’s a joy watching Tavernier and Bong talk about Bong’s work, Tavernier throwing praise on Bong, which you can tell is thrilling for Bong but he’s trying to keep humble. I also enjoyed Bong talking about his visual sense, even explaining at one point how he might film something in the very auditorium they were in at that moment. What’s frustrating about this, though, and it’s really through no fault of anyone considering the language gap, is that half of the feature is literally the translator translating between Bong and Tavernier, since Tavernier is speaking French and Bong Korean. So we get a question and answer, but in between we have to wait for the respective translations. That aspect is what it is, but the length of the feature can be mostly attributed to that.
The disc then closes with a storyboard comparison (for the sequence where the Kim’s need to sneak out of the house) and then a trailer for the black-and-white version. Criterion also includes a short insert featuring an essay by Inkoo Kang, writing about the film, its impact, Bong, and Korean cinema.
Overall it’s a great set of features and maybe this release’s strongest aspect, at least in comparison to other editions.
This special edition packs in some excellent supplementary material (including the black-and-white version of the film) but Criterion's aversion to 4K is especially grating here, ensuring this edition isn’t the definitive one it could be.