Five Takeaways From ‘Parasite’
February 19, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft better stories.
With Oscar® still fresh on our minds, let’s dive into the film that swept the awards and see what all the fuss was about Bong Joon Ho’s bloody, brilliant and brutal Parasite.
A masterclass of tight storytelling, there are screenwriting breadcrumbs all over this sinewy thriller from which writers can pull from to keep their stories from stinking like an old radish (if you’ve seen the film, you know).
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
It’s airtight. The highest praise you can give a story is that it feels “complete.” Every set-up is paid off, every bit of info you give your audience has value and moves the plot, character or theme forward. Parasite is an excellent example of this with not a wasted hint within it. Not an empty aside or narrative dead-end. The little boy is a member of Cub Scouts? Posters of Morse code on the wall? That ghost in the basement? The housekeeper that eats enough for two? The rock that brings wealth? That “smell” that signifies poor people? You better believe every one of these little asides in conversation is laying the groundwork for huge implications later. On repeat viewing, it becomes clear that every line of dialogue is used, as well. There are no throw-away asides or unresolved threads. While not usually possible in your first draft, these types of layers in the dialogue and the storytelling come from honing your story through multiple rewrites and a very clear understanding of where you want it to go—and then going BACK and putting all these delicious little clues in. It’s this kind of dense storytelling that separates middle-of-the-road screenplays from true page-turners.
Use complications, not mystery. It’s easy when writing a mystery or thriller to simply leave out critical facts or obvious pieces of information. Then, when the narrative drags, you can reveal them to shake up your audience. At best, it’s a needlessly clever tactic and at worst, it’s toying with your audience. I know, it seems counterintuitive to give away lots of information to your audience—but give us what we need to know to really enjoy the story. An audience that’s heavily invested in your characters and understands the plot is one that is fully along for the ride. In Parasite, we know the Kim family’s plan is to take over the Park family’s perfect life. It’s established pretty quickly and clearly what the Kim family wants and what they’re doing to get it. We know their plot through several, literal “table setting” scenes (where the family sits around a table and explains what they’re going to do). Thus, our complete understanding has us invested in the narrative. There is no confusion and, in some sick and twisted way, we’re actually rooting for these parasites to take over the Park household. By dispensing with any clever reversals and leaving us to become invested in the characters, you can actually build a stronger connection between your audience and your protagonist (notice I didn’t say hero, the Kim clan are hardly that). Using complications instead of mystery can be a great tool to set up your actual big twists, allowing them to land effectively and really pack a punch. Which takes us to:
The good old midpoint twist. If you’ve ever read a screenplay book, taken a writing class, or even watched a few movies, you’ll notice that about halfway through the story, something pretty big happens. Sometimes it’s good, but usually not—this midpoint complication isn’t just an obstacle or annoyance, it’s a game changer. In Parasite, the (roughly) midpoint twist is a doozy: there’s another level below the Park house. The clever and longstanding housekeeper Mun-Kwang (Lee Jeong-eun) shows up during a storm and confesses that her husband, Kun-sae, has been hiding in a secret bunker underneath the Park house for over four years. The Kims are shocked by the state of his living conditions—even though it draws chilling parallels to their own. This knockout midpoint twist catches us entirely off-guard. So if you haven’t convoluted and cluttered your narrative with distraction, misdirection and confusion, then we’ll be invested in the characters, clear about their goals, and the midpoint twist will be a sucker punch that sets us up for a second half we couldn’t possibly tear ourselves away from. The power of the midpoint twist can save a lagging narrative or can elevate a great one into the stratosphere. When developing your story, think of the middle: What could happen that would totally change the game? What would shift your characters’ goals in an unexpected direction. That’s your midpoint twist.
Less is more when it comes to theme. A strong, singular thematic point of view makes for a very cohesive story. Theme is a powerful thing, but only when laser focused. In Parasite, it’s rich vs poor; the dark side of wealth, privilege and Capitalism. It’s an age-old dilemma and one at the heart of another Oscar nominee this year, Joker. But Parasite delivers its consistent vision with a slick Korean makeover. After the blood is mopped up and the bodies are buried, we can look at Parasite and clearly see its message: that by hiring the poor below them, the rich are, in effect, causing the poor to devour each other, until eventually the “parasite” turns on its host (quite literally, in the final act of this film). In Parasite, wealth is part of the natural order of modern life, drawing parasites who feed off of its power. Even the opening and closing of the film forms a “bookend” of sorts for the filmmaker’s point of view: we begin and end in a sub-basement, caught between two worlds. There is no escape. A parasite is content only to dream, because this is his lot in life. The father crawling out from the hidden room when a new family moves in circles us back to the previous family that lived below and snuck out at night to eat. In a sense, we find ourselves in the same place, as if the filmmaker is telling us, “There will always be another wealthy person to live upstairs, just as there will always be another poor creature to dwell below them.” Parasite stays focused on this theme throughout, and the story is stronger for it.
What’s the genre? Most people I’ve spoken to don’t even know what genre Parasite is. A horror? A serious drama? A black comedy? Does it even matter? I’m sure plenty of critics would disagree, but the truth is, no movie last year brought so many points of view out of the woodwork. If you asked five people what kind of movie Parasite was, you got five different answers. My rich neighbor with her many housekeepers saw it as an abject horror, while my blue-collar parents saw it as a revenge fantasy for the working class. As a horror buff myself, I laughed way more than maybe I should’ve, while the squeamish gang I watched it with sat on the edge of their seats, fearful for one of the families in the film, and reviling the other two. As screenwriters, we’re taught to know the ins and outs of our genres—the rules of horror, the steps a thriller takes, the archetypes of an action movie, the setups and payoffs of comedy. Then movies like Parasite come along, and it’s not the first I’ve noticed that pushes genre boundaries. So, what does that mean? Does genre not matter anymore? Or maybe, that’s the point of Parasite; for those wishing for a condemnation of capitalism, they can find their movie. For those wishing to read into the film theories of Westernization and the psycho-sexual perversions of the rich, they can find their meaning. Still, if all that bores you and if you just want a tight thriller with plenty of blood—you can find that by the bucketload. Parasite succeeds on many levels. So, is entertainment reaching a point where genre doesn’t matter as much as it once did? Hate on subtitles all you want (that’s an article for another day) but the truth is, I’ve seen all the movies in the Best Picture/Screenplay/Adapted Screenplay categories from last week’s Oscars, and Parasite is the only movie I’m still thinking, talking—and writing—about.
FINAL TAKEAWAY: The ladder of wealth and privilege turns out to be a violent and slippery slope. More astute in its social observations than anything else in 2019’s Oscar race, this funny, bloody satire took home the best picture. And it deserved it.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.