This episode, we’re looking at 2019’s PARASITE, the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, among others.
Here’s the links:
And here’s the script of this episode:
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show. And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode. You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing last year’s PARASITE, the first foreign language film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. And to go with that Best Picture Oscar, it got the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, and a bunch of others. It was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho and stars Song Kang Ho, Choi Woo Shik, Park so Dam, Chang Hyae Jin, and Cho Yeo Jeong. And I am sure I pronounced some of those names wrong – my apologies to the cast and to any who might be offended. And my further apologies, because I’m almost certainly going to make more pronunciation mistakes before this podcast is over.
As usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about. It’s basically the worst of all worlds. But this was one of the most interesting movies of 2019, in all sorts of ways. So do try to see it if you haven’t!
PARASITE is the story of the Kim family. They are desperately poor, but things start to look up when Ki-Woo gets a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family. He quickly finds a way to get his entire family hired by the Parks, and all looks good when they discover that the previous maid, who they got fired to clear a path for Kim mother Chung Sook, has a secret hidden in the Park family basement. And that secret will cause the lives of the Kims and the Parks to spin out of control, with fatal consequences.
It’s a fascinating movie, one that often surprised me. And it’s a movie with a rich set of characters and no clear protagonist.
Early in the film, it seems like the protagonist is Ki-Woo, the son of the Kim family. He’s clever and resourceful, though he has a sense of being inferior to the rich Parks and their circle. He puts up a brave front, but occasionally we see behind his façade to the doubts underneath.
If we were to pick one character as protagonist, it would be Ki-Woo. He is not only our point of view character at the beginning of the film, he is also the character we follow at the end.
But in between, his family take turns being protagonist. At distinct times, we see things through the points of view of his sister, mother, and father. Further, his other family members drive the action in several scenes. In particular, at the climax of the film, Ki-Woo is unconscious.
So while Ki-Woo might just barely be the lead, I think it makes more sense to view this movie as one with a group of protagonists. So let’s meet them.
There is his sister, Ki-Jung. And while Ki-Woo feels like he doesn’t belong among the rich, Ki-Jung fits in just fine. She seems like a perfect chameleon, who can drop into any role, any place, and fit in perfectly. So much that Ki-Woo, later in the film, tells her, “This house. It suits you. You’re not like us.” And Ki-Jung certainly has no problem taking charge of any situation, pretending perfectly to be an art therapist, or a demanding clerical at a high-end agency for hiring servants.
And let me digress for a moment to note one thing. This movie is in Korean. Therefore, I’m afraid there will be no audio clips in today’s podcast. You’re going to have to make do with my voice, reading the translation. Sorry about that – I like the film clips too. I promise they’ll be back next week!
The Kim family father is Ki-Tek. He’s a man beaten down by life. He’s less capable than his family – he even has trouble correctly folding pizza boxes. And he clearly is more sensitive to the various slights that the Kim family members suffer due to poverty. And there’s some deep reserves of rage in this man, rage that will explode before the film is over.
Rounding off the Kims we have the mother, Chung Sook. She is practical, and more hardened by her family’s plight. She’ll do what it takes to help her family survive, and won’t waste too much time showing sympathy for others.
And that’s the Kims. Together, they serve as the protagonists of this movie. So this is, in fact, a case where we have a group of main characters, and we are almost always seeing the world through the eyes of only one person.
Taken together, the Kims are loyal to each other. There’s no significant conflicts between these four. Their problems are with the rest of the world.
This loyalty in the group is rather endearing. I think we like these characters more because they are so close, because they support each other completely. It’s nice to see a family holding together so strongly in the face of such horrible conditions. The Kims often act in ways that are unpleasant and unlikable: their loyalty to each other helps offset this and keeps us liking them.
On the other side of the wealth divide, we have the Park family. And just as the Kims have two parents, a son, and a daughter, so do the Parks.
The mother is Yeon Kyo. She’s a nice lady, but terribly naïve, prone to falling for every scam the Kims pull. But she’s protected by her prosperity. It doesn’t matter so much if she is naïve: her wealth keeps her safe.
The father is Dong Ik. He’s a successful tech company CEO, used to being in charge, but still with compassion for others. He doesn’t like when his servants cross the line, as he often repeats. But he rarely comes down hard on anyone – we never see him mad or upset in this movie.
The daughter is Da Hye, a high-school teen who is pretty and sweet and awfully romantic. But there’s really nothing about her that stands out. Of the lead characters in this film, she may be the most generic.
The son is Da Song, a ten-year old boy, hyperactive, badly behaved, and with a deep trauma: he once saw what he thought was a ghost.
All in all, the Parks are pleasant people. They try to treat people well, and if they have any real faults, they are more from lack of understanding than lack of decency.
But we should note that there is some minor conflict within the Park family. Lon-Kyo is worried about her son, Da-Song. And daughter Da-Hae is jealous of him. Meanwhile, Lon-Kyo keeps secrets from her husband and schemes behind his back. And he seems to have doubts about her, as when he says about her, “Of course I love her. We’ll call it love.”
So while the poor Kims have to stick tightly together to survive in their difficult world, the wealthy Parks can afford to have their petty conflicts. Lack of full loyalty is a luxury, and only the Parks can afford luxuries.
There are two other significant characters. The first is Mun-Kwang, who at the beginning of the film is the Park family maid. When she is the maid, she appears to be a model of propriety. She is unflappable and glides smoothly through the Park home. She appears to be the perfect servant.
But later, when she reappears after being fired, she is much less in control. Now she’s unctuous when begging for help, harsh when she has the upper hand. Losing her place makes her less than what she was.
And then there’s her husband, Kun-Sae, the man in the secret basement, the secret that rips apart these lives. He lived in that basement for over four years, never seeing the sun, and being there has driven him to the edge of insanity. But still, he is pitiful in his devotion to the Park family, and to Dong Ik in particular. He even pays tribute to Dong Ik, shouts “Respect” as he lights the entrance lights to guide his way in. A tribute that Dong-Ik doesn’t even notice.
So that’s our cast of characters. And it’s a big one – that’s ten significant characters, not counting a couple minor figures. And every one of those characters stands out as an individual. It’s worth taking a look at that – how does this film manage to make so many characters be so distinct?
I think the first thing to note is that most of these characters have distinct roles in the structure of one of the two families. And the two families themselves are distinct. There’s the poor Kims and the rich Parks. And each family has a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. So right off, instead of tracking eight individual characters, we only have to track two families, each having one person in each of the iconic slots.
So when we think of, say, Yon-Kyo, we can say “she’s the rich family mom.” That’s easy to track.
Now she’s also pretty, sweet, and naïve. So she has a distinct personality, as do all these characters. But our minds immediately jump to her distinct slot, so we have a way to quickly identify her.
I don’t think this would work as well if there were other family members. Suppose the Kims had two sons instead of one. Or the Parks had three daughters, no son, and an aunt living with them. All of a sudden the configurations would be more complex, and we’d have a harder time keeping things straight. With the simple configuration, just the iconic slots filled, and with the family structure of each family being the same, we find it easier to track each of the characters.
And, of course, the difference between the Parks and the Kims, the one so rich and the other so poor, helps keep them distinct. And it also adds thematic resonance, which we’ll talk about later.
That leaves us with two more key characters, who are not part of the families. These are Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae. And at first, Mun-Kwang has a clear slot: she’s the rich family’s maid. And when we first meet her, she fits perfectly into that slot. She’s a calm presence, just like the centered smooth servants we’ve seen in so many other such stories.
What’s interesting is what happens to her later. When she shows up at the door, halfway through the film, she seems like an entirely different person. Her behavior is a shock – when she’s out of her old slot, her behavior is surprising and strange.
Then we meet Kun-Sae, and he never fit into any slot. He’s a complete wildcard, both because of his lack of place and because of his strange behavior. It makes him stand out, makes us remember him.
So, how does this movie make these ten characters stand out so vividly?
First, by having eight of them fit so carefully into specific categories. There’s two families, and two families are easy to track, especially when they differ so much in one key dimension, that of wealth. And each family fills four specific slots, father, mother, son, and daughter. And these are iconic slots, and there’s only one person in each slot in each family. Given this structure, tracking the Parks and Kims is easy.
I watched another movie this past weekend, an old Japanese horror movie called HOUSE. It was a weird film, and a lot of fun, with bizarre touches that left me laughing in delight. But I had trouble keeping the characters separate in my mind. The film had seven schoolgirls who went to a haunted house. And while each girl had a distinct characteristic, and even was named for the characteristic, they still blended together. That was because they all fit into the same cognitive slot: schoolgirl. PARASITE’s approach of having distinct cognitive slots for the characters keeps them from blending together.
For the remaining two, one starts in a slot, so that’s easy. But then both become the Other, not quite fitting anywhere, which also makes them distinct. But even here, they have iconic slots: one is the female Other, one the male Other. So that helps keep them separate in our mind.
Some interesting things for screenwriters there. Reduce cognitive categories for the audience: instead of remembering 10 characters, the audience has to remember 2 families. And use standard archetypes for characters. The Father. The Daughter. The Mother. The Son. Then you can easily fit in one or two characters that don’t fit into any category – for them, the fact that they do not fit into a slot makes them memorable.
Okay, so much for characters. How is this film structured?
As usual, my take first. I think this movie is broken into four acts and a postscript.
The first act is typical set-up: meet the Kims. And it’s a surprisingly short act. Only 13 pages, in fact.
This is remarkably efficient storytelling. We get a distinct impression of this family in a remarkably short amount of time.
I think that’s because these characters and their condition is so extreme. They’re not just poor, they’re incredibly poor. And their poverty has sapped them of any sense of self-worth: they feel so bad about themselves that they can’t even bring themselves to tell a guy not to urinate on their open window.
And the details of their lives are incredibly vivid. The sub-basement apartment. The toilet raised up on a platform. Not closing the window during the fumigation of the street so they can get a little free extermination. The struggle to get wi-fi. The cheap pizza boxes.
With details that vivid, you don’t need to spend a lot of time setting things up. It’s terrific story-telling. It’s a thorough setting of the stage with no time wasted.
It’s a great model for screenwriters. You don’t need page after page to establish your world: a few sufficiently extreme images are enough.
Similarly, once Ki-Woo’s friend Min shows up, the establishment of the story is quite efficient. We hear about the job of tutor. We see the Kims forge the credentials to allow Ki-Woo to get the job. We get right down to it, and it takes only another 6 pages.
This first act is masterful. So much accomplished, so little time. Not only the things I mentioned, the poverty and the inciting incident to kick off the story, but what we see of this family. The Kims are in dire straits, but they all pull together. They all work their hardest so that all can prosper. They all fold pizza boxes. They all cooperate to get wi-fi. Ki-Jung forges papers so Ki-Woo can get the job. This is a family that sticks together, and while there’s going to be some major conflict in this film, it’s not between these characters.
I think that’s a good lesson for the screenwriter. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling. But it’s okay to not have some characters be in conflict. It’s okay to have some strong alliances in a film. You don’t need conflict between characters if they face a strong enough external conflict, and the poverty of the Kim family certainly qualifies as strong external conflict.
I mentioned the inciting incident. There’s actually two things here that have some aspects of inciting incident. The first is Min’s gift of the viewing stone to the Kim family. This stone is a symbol of their changing fates, of the prosperity that they will, for a moment, have. When Min gives it to them, although it doesn’t make any explicit changes to the course of the story, it does have a mystical effect on this story, symbolizing a change that’s about to happen.
There is also a more traditional inciting incident. That’s Min’s offer to help Ki-Woo get the job as tutor. And it’s that job that starts this movie going. And that sends us into act two.
Act Two is all about getting the Kim family entrenched into the Park Family household. And it has a fairly nice repetitive structure. Think of this as a theme-and-variations with a series of sequences with similar structures.
In each, one of the Kims gets a job with the Parks. That person gets established in the job, and then pulls another member of the family in to take another job. Then the pattern repeats, with the next person pulling in another family member. This repeats until all four Kims work for the Parks.
The first one up is Ki-Woo. He gets the job as tutor to Park daughter Da-Hae. Then, upon hearing of Park son Da-Song’s art talent, he suggests that he knows a good art teacher. Who, as it happens, is his sister Ki-Jung, though Ki-Woo doesn’t reveal the relationship.
Then Ki-Jung shows up, gets the job, and lays the groundwork to hire her father Ki-Tek as the new driver.
But there is an escalation here. Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung have gotten their jobs through trickery and fraud. But only the rich Parks are harmed by their action, and even they aren’t really hurt. Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung do a good job at the work they are hired to do. They just lied to get that work. So while the Parks are fooled, they still get competent help.
But the Parks already have a driver. So before bringing in Ki-Tek, that existing driver needs to be disposed of. Ki-Jung does this by leaving her panties in the back seat of the car, a trick that costs driver Yun his job when the Parks suspect him of having sex with a girl in the family’s car. For the first time, the Kims have caused real harm to someone, taking the job from another poor person.
This escalation continues in the next cycle. To make room for Chung-Sook, the Kim mother, the Kims work together to get the maid Mun-Kwang fired. And they do this by exposing her to peach fuzz, to which she has an allergy.
Now they’ve gone beyond mere trickery to causing someone else physical harm. A harm compounded when Ki-Tek, with his son Ki-Woo’s coaching, convinces Park mom Yon-Kyo that her maid isn’t only allergic, she has tuberculosis.
This goes deep into the dark side. The Kims are now causing active physical harm to others, potentially serious harm. They’re on a sliding slope, and they’ve slid deeper into the pit.
But finally, all the Kims are in place, and the act is over. The Kims have achieved a level of prosperity well beyond where they were at the start of the film.
Note how cleanly this was done. How nicely the repetitive pattern of these sequences plays out. How the same basic actions occur – person shows up for job, person tricks Parks into hiring another family member. But how each sequence gets a little darker than the one before, the Kims stoop a little lower each time. It’s a terrific use of theme and variations.
There’s some good lessons for screenwriters here. The repetitive structure is worth emulating. But the changes in each cycle, and the way those changes escalate, is a key part of making this work.
Another thing worth noting is the placement of this act in the film. This is still fairly early in the film, way up in the second act. But it’s not right at the start of the film. We need time to meet the players before we drop into the cycle. But we don’t want the repetition to come too late –repetition works well at this point and provides a comforting pattern, but it would get annoying later in the film when we want action to be accelerating towards the finale.
So now we’re in act three. The Kims are on top of the world, and they celebrate as the Parks go off on a camping trip, leaving the Kims with the run of the mansion.
And they enjoy it. They enjoy the luxury life, whether it be drinking expensive alcohol or taking a luxury bubble-bath while watching TV. They have reached their high point.
Which means, of course, that Act Three is all about throwing them a curve, making things difficult for the Kims.
This starts when former maid Mun-Kwang shows up in the middle of their partying. But this is a Mun-Kwang unlike the one we met before. She is less confident, begging to recover something from the basement.
And now things start getting seriously weird. Because what she left in the basement was her husband. And for the first time, we see some significant conflict in this film, because there’s a power-struggle between Mun-Kwang and her husband Kun-Sae on one side and the Kim family on the other.
The power shifts back in forth in this struggle, and not surprisingly, it eventually comes down to violence. The Kims attack Mun-Kwang and her husband, tie them up, and leave them in the secret room under the basement. And, in the case of Mun-Kwang, leave her badly hurt, so badly that she will eventually die.
Now note: Mun-Kwang and her husband are not innocent here. They blackmail the Kims, and when they have the upper-hand they are not in any way kind. The violence is shown as initially justified, a simple struggle to gain a phone so that Mun-Kwang won’t send an incriminating video to the Parks. But then it escalates. Though the Kims don’t want to hurt Mun-Kwang and her husband – it just sort of happens.
But then, just when these interlopers are subdued, the Parks return. And because three of the four Kims aren’t supposed to be at the house, that causes all sorts of problems.
And so, Ki-Tek, Ki-Woo, and Ki-Jung end up hiding under the coffee table while the Park parents Dong-Ik and Yon-Kyo engage in some sex play on the couch. It’s incredibly awkward for the Kims, especially when Dong-Ik and Yon-Kyo start talking about the Kims, their smell, the cheapness of Ki-Jung’s panties. (Which were left in the backseat of the Park’s car – there’s really nothing creepy about the things the Parks are saying, they just don’t know the Kims are there to hear it.)
We’ll talk more about this moment in a bit, but it’s worth noting the impact this has on Ki-Tek. His anger and frustration with his situation is growing, and before the film ends it’s going to explode.
Anyway, the three get away, and finally go home. Only to find their home deeply flooded. A rainstorm that caused a little trouble for the Parks – made them cancel a camping trip – is a major disaster for the Kims. And it drives them to their low point, sleeping with refugees on a school gym’s floor. All the while, down in the secret room under the Park house, Mun-Kwang appears to be dead and Kun-Sae is in despair. It’s an awfully low point, a true dark night of the soul for all of the poor people in this film.
But just another night for the Parks, who are insulated by their wealth.
But now we’re into act four, the climax of the film. Which is kicked off when Yon-Kyo decides to hold a party for her son Da-Song.
Of course the Kims are dragged into this. Ki-Tek must drive around Yon-Kyo to get supplies. Chung-Sook struggles to set up party tables. Ki-Jung will be a paid guest. Even Ki-Woo is summoned because Park daughter Da-Hae wants him there, he’s her crush.
And the party is beautiful. Well-dressed guests, happy children, the best foods – it’s all here. Ki-Woo stares down at the party, stunned, and says, “They’re all so gorgeous. Even though they had to come at the last minute. So cool. Laid back.” And he wonders, “Do I look like I belong here?”
He’s completely adrift.
There’s other tensions rising in this party. Ki-Tek has been simmering all day, driving around Yon-Kyo right after his own home is flooded. When he’s called on to play an Indian for young Da-Song to attack, you can see his frustration build as he comes a hair away from telling Dong-Ik to shove it.
Into this growing tension comes Kun-Sae, whose wife Mun-Kwang has died after the struggles of the night before, and he’s out for blood. He attacks Ki-Woo, almost killing him with the viewing stone. Then he comes out to the party and stabs Ki-Jung. In the explosion of violence that follows, Ki-Jung is killed. Kun-Sae is killed. Da-Song has a seizure. And finally, Ki-Tek snaps and stabs Dong-Ik to death.
It’s an incredible explosive climax to this film, an explosion that arises from the growing tensions of the extreme income inequality that we see throughout.
There’s a final postscript, a last eleven pages in which we find out what happens. Ki-Tek disappears, but as we find out, he’s now the man hiding in the secret room in the basement. Ki-Jung is dead. Ki-Woo and Chung-Sook escape the worst of the consequences, but their family is forever broken.
And we see Ki-Woo’s final hope, that someday he will make enough money to buy the house and bring his father back into the daylight. But somehow, we know this will never happen.
It’s an incredibly bleak ending to this film. But an appropriate one.
We should note, this is the first true down ending in any of the films we’ve done so far. PARASITE ends on a tragic note, something that is rare. It happens, but not in the films we’ve looked at to date.
And that’s the structure as I see it. Four acts and a postscript. Act one, we meet the Kims and their world. Act two, the Kim’s rise through a series of actions that escalate in immorality. Act three, a wildcard appears in the shape of the man who lives under the house, who is the catalyst for a series of actions that make the Kims face their low place in the world. Act four, the explosive climax in which the party turns into a bloodbath, where the man under the house initiates the brutal explosion, which itself climaxes when Ki-Tek can’t take it anymore and when he kills Dong-Ik. And a final postscript where we see the end result of all these events.
It’s a nice, clean structure that leads into tragedy.
In terms of three-act structure, PARASITE is another case where my four acts map well to Syd Fields’s three acts by combining my acts two and three into a single act. In this case, the setup is the same: meet the Kims. The inciting incident is as I described it: when Ki-Woo’s friend Min offers to help him get a job with the Parks. The Midpoint is the discovery of the man who lives under the house, a huge surprise that turns the entire story around. And the final act begins when Yon-Kyo decides to hold a party, with the climax being the violent end of the party.
But examine this midpoint. It is a jaw-dropping moment. The first time I saw this film, the man in the basement completely surprised me. I wasn’t expecting anything like it. It was well done indeed – a huge surprise that completely changed the course of the film.
So again, we have a terrific midpoint. Not every movie we’ve seen has such a nice big shift right at the middle of the film. But where we’ve seen it – the chest-burster scene in ALIEN, the Get Out scene in GET OUT, and now this – it’s been hugely impactful.
This has been my biggest single takeaway from doing this podcast and analyzing these films. The power of a strong midpoint. And now, when I am structuring a new film, I think carefully about midpoints. They have an amazing impact on a film.
Not every film needs a midpoint, and we’ve looked at some great films where there was no real midpoint. But given their power, I think screenwriters should think carefully before abandoning the idea of having one.
Anyway, on to Save the Cat. It’s all pretty straight-forward, and there’s a lane in the Storylanes analysis for it. Once again, there’s no debate, except for perhaps one brief moment when Ki-Woo resists the idea of taking the tutor job. But that goes by so fast you could easily miss it, and it leaves little impact. And the statement of the theme, which save the Cat says should happen on page 5, doesn’t happen until well into the movie, on page 67. We’ll talk about that shortly. The other Save the Cat beats are generally here, though the opening and closing images don’t say much about the film.
The Hero’s Journey view of PARASITE is also fairly standard. We do have an actual location shift here, so this is one of those stories where the hero enters a different, strange, and magical world. In this case, the world of the Park family’s house. I like that – the sense of going somewhere for the adventure. It’s clearly not required, but it helps, as in this case.
Now let’s take a look at the theme. PARASITE is clearly a movie about income inequality. The drama and conflict in this film are a result of the extreme poverty of the Kims next to the extreme wealth of the Parks.
But that’s not the only thing this movie has to say about income inequality. One fascinating thing about this movie is that almost all of the conflict isn’t between the rich Parks and the poor Kims. It’s between the Kims and other poor people, mostly Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae, but also, to a lesser extent, between the Kims and Yun, the Parks’ first driver.
So this movie doesn’t show a battle between the rich and poor. It says extreme income inequality leads to battles between different groups of poor people. The rich people, enjoying all the comforts that their money provides, can afford to be above the fray, to be kind to one and all. There’s no major cost to peacefulness for them.
This is clearly stated in a scene on page 67 when Chung-Sook says of Yon-Kyo and the Parks: “She’s nice because she’s rich. Hell, If I had all this money, I’d be nice too.”
The vicious struggles between the Kims and the other poor people in this movie are a fascinating statement on the effect of income inequality. In PARASITE’s world, the poor are locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival.
Now, a quick look at subplots.
This movie is not too heavy with subplots. I really only found three main ones.
First, there’s the gradually increasing rage of Ki-Tek. We can see hints of his frustration early on, but later he is clearly bothered by the comments about his smell, and he shows little hints of anger.
When the Kims are enjoying the run of the Park house, Ki-Tek gets angry at a comment made saying that he would scuttle like a cockroach if the Parks were back. It turns out that he’s only pretending to be so angry, but is he really pretending? This is notable as it’s the only time in the film that there’s any real contention among the Kims.
Later, Ki-Tek and his children do scuttle under the furniture like cockroaches, and we can see Ki-Tek is disturbed when he listens to comments about his smell by the Parks, who don’t know he’s there. And later he has to freeze in place on the bare floor, again, like a cockroach. This all fuels his rage.
He speaks to that in the gym with the other refugees, when he speaks to his son of the futility of their life. And I really wish I could play the clip for this, but again, you’ll have to make do with me reading it. “Do you want to know how you make a foolproof plan? Don’t plan at all. Have no plan. If you plan, something will always go wrong. That’s life. Look around. Do you think these people got up this morning and said ‘Tonight I’m going to sleep on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers’? But look where they are now. Look where we are. That’s why you should never plan. If you don’t have a plan, you can’t fail. You can’t do anything wrong. Doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit fucking treason. Nothing fucking matters. You understand?”
Later we see his frustration as he drives Yon-Kyo around as she prepares for the party. And he is clearly angry to be dragged into playing an Indian so that Da-Song can fight him off. There is a complete lack of dignity in this role, contrasting with his place as the cool driver of a luxury car. To get him to continue, Dong-Ik has to remind him that he is being paid, he’s trading dignity for cash. It’s a tense moment, the only real moment of tension between the Parks and the Kims.
And at last, of course, when Dong-Ik smells the stench of Kun-Sae, locked for years in a basement, and when Ki-Tek sees Dong-Ik sniff, Ki-Tek is triggered. He charges, attacks Dong-Ik. Kills him. It’s the climax of the movie, and the climax of this subplot.
The second subplot I found is the man living under the house. This one is sort of sprung on us at the midpoint, where the presence of Kun-Sae living under the house is revealed. Before that, it clearly raises the stakes for Mun-Kwang when she is fired, though we the audience don’t know it yet. And there’s a few minor hints when we learn that Da-Song had a trauma at some point. The trauma was seeing Kun-Sae in the house, though we don’t yet hear what the trauma was. And, of course, Kun-Sae is the catalyst for the bloodbath, when he comes out with a knife, kills Ki-Jung, and tries to kill Chung-Sook and Ki-Woo. But he is then killed in turn by Chung-Sook.
But finally, Ki-Tek, after killing Dong-Ik, goes into the secret room. He now becomes the man living under the house.
We should note: first Kun-Sae, and later Ki-Tek, are the literal parasites of this film. They do not contribute anything to the homeowners. Instead, they live secretly within, surviving by stealing enough food to live but not enough to be noticed. So Kun-Sae is the title character.
Though of course the title has thematic resonance as well. We could endlessly speculate on who the true parasites are here: the Kims, living as they do off the Parks. Or the Parks, using up so much of this world’s resources so that there’s not enough to go around.
Anyway, the final subplot is the romance between Ki-Woo and Da-Hae. There’s not too much to this one. They have a low-level romance that involves a little kissing. But it doesn’t go beyond the kissing and daydreaming stage.
Finally, though not an entire subplot, it’s worth noting the presence of the viewing stone, a stone that supposedly will bring the family prosperity. It’s a running motif throughout the film, culminating when it is used on Ki-Woo and almost becomes the instrument of his death. This quest for prosperity has almost killed him. It has certainly done mortal damage to the Kims.
So, that’s character, structure, and subplot. Now what are the lessons from this script?
First, consider how the characters are set up. The way that the eight family members are easily grouped conceptually into the two families. How distinct those families are, but how similar in structure. How each family member fits nicely into a specific cognitive slot. How there are two outsiders, but even they fit into distinct slots, the male outsider and the female outsider. These are all techniques that allow for a large cast of significant characters, but lets them all clearly stand out.
Second, look at the structure of the second act. Its similarly structured sequences repeating, but with an element that escalates. How it gets the audience into a nice rhythm, but still escalates one key aspect. This is superb. I find this a definite takeaway.
And third, consider that first act. It sets up everything that needs to be set up in a quick 12 pages. It does this by making the details so vivid that they make a huge impression. So that’s the lesson: make the details vivid. Don’t be shy with them. But if they are sufficiently vivid, you can get through your setup quickly and then get on to the story.
So that’s PARASITE. I was happy when it won the Oscar this year, and I’m still happy. I hope you are too.
Over the next two episodes, I’m going to try something a little different. I’m going to do THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and next week will be a regular episode that focuses on the structure. But in the next episode, I’m going to do a deep dive into one particular scene. Because it’s time we took a closer look at scene structure and dialogue. And if you’re going to examine dialogue, you can’t do wrong by looking at an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, and one that won an Oscar.
Until then, check us out at Storylanes.com, where you’ll find the script of this episode, a link to the PARASITE screenplay, and the Storylanes chart for this movie.
And if you enjoyed this podcast, please leave a review on whichever Podcast service you heard it on. That will help others discover us.
This is Joe Dzikiewicz and the Storylanes podcast. Talk at you later.