Welcome to the Screenwriting Secrets series, a collaboration between The Script Lab and Script Sleuth. Today we take a look at six brilliant screenwriting secrets in Parasite, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and winner of Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points are discussed in this article. We highly suggest you see the film prior to reading this blog post.
1. USING LOCATION TO AUGMENT THE STORY
In good screenwriting, the location serves the story and amplifies the theme. It should help create the maximum emotional impact for a scene. It’s especially the case in the screenplay for Parasite, in which negative events occur as characters physically descend to a lower level.
Here are some examples:
- The film starts with Ki-Woo squatting near the ground. The negative event: he can no longer steal the neighbor’s wi-fi-signal.
- When Ki-Woo lies to Mrs. Park about the so-called “Jessica”, they’re descending the steps, in line with his negative action.
- When the young Park children spy on the new art teacher, they’ve come down the stairs to do so.
- When Ki-Jung kicks Mrs. Park out of her first lesson with Da-Song, she doesn’t say, “please leave the room”. She tells her to wait downstairs.
- When Mrs. Park asks the housekeeper, Moon-Gwang, to spy on Jessica, she actually goes down to the cellar to do so.
- When they poison Moon-Gwang with the peach fuzz, Ki-Woo is seen walking downhill.
- The midpoint reveal is a big negative turn of events for the family. So it’s fitting that they have to descend many levels in order to reach the secret bunker.
- In the big downturn at the end of the second act, the family descends endless stairs in the city to get home.
- In the third act, when Ki-Woo seems to have a plan to do something bad with the rock, notice what he says: I have to go down there.
- And finally, when Ki-Taek kills Mr. Park, he, too, must flee by traveling downwards to the street below.
NOTE: There’s a noticeable exception to this when it comes to Ki-Taek and Mrs. Park. When he lies to her about accidentally seeing Moon-Gwang in the hospital, they’re actually going up a moving walkway. Later, when Mrs. Park schemes with him to fire Moon-Gwang, she tells Ki-Taek to come up to the second floor.
Not sure what Bong Joon-ho was trying to get at here. I’d love to hear your take on this. Leave a comment below!
Now let’s look at how positive events occur as characters go upwards:
- In the opening scene, Ki-Woo obtains a wi-fi signal by going up near the toilet.
- On his first day on the job, notice how he travels upwards, ascending steps from his semi-basement home, up the steps to the Park house.
- When Ki-Taek is about to get his job as a driver, researching the Mercedes-Benz consoles, they’re seen on the upper level of the Benz dealership.
- And finally, when Chung-Sook gets her job as the new housekeeper, guess which way she’s introduced: going up the stairs.
Don’t forget: the locations are just as important as the characters. Use them wisely to augment your story.
2. FATAL FLAWS
In Parasite, several characters have fatal flaws, in that they believe in things that aren’t true. And these beliefs only get them in more trouble.
For example, to Ki-Taek, the father of the Kim family, having a plan is more important than doing legitimate, hard work. This negatively affects his family and gets them in deeper trouble as they always turn to him for a plan. Ki-Taek then comes to a revelation before the third act, when he realizes that having a plan only leads to disappointment, as life doesn’t follow your plans. So it’s especially absurd when Ki-Woo says this, “Father, I have a plan. I’m going to make a lot of money.”
Speaking of Ki-Woo, he seems to believe that there’s some special meaning in everything he sees: the landscape rock, Da-Song’s self portrait, and being in the drivers’ cafeteria as they scheme to have their father become the new driver.
Mrs. Park also has her own belief that gets her in deeper trouble: she can only trust someone recommended by a person she knows well.
So look at the chain of events this perpetuates: she automatically trusts Ki-Woo (recommended by his friend Min). Ki-Woo recommends Ki-Jung to be Da-Song’s art tutor. Ki-Jung recommends her father for the vacant driver position. Ki-Taek then gives them a fake business card for “The Care”, which lands Chung-Sook her job as the new housekeeper.
All of which comes tumbling down in the end. So when it comes to your characters, think of how their fatal flaws get them into deeper trouble.
3. THE MIDPOINT
It can be argued that the midpoint of a story is the most important plot point in a screenplay. The story completely changes as there is usually some sort of big revelation that the characters must now deal with in the second half of the story. In Parasite, the big midpoint occurs when the housekeeper, Moon-Gwang, returns.
The big reveal is that there’s a bunker under the house, and her husband has been living there for years. This may seem like a crazy plot development, but we didn’t arrive at this point haphazardly. Look at how expertly it’s been set up beforehand:
- On Ki-Woo’s first day as Da-Hye’s tutor, Moon-Gwang tells him that the house belonged to the architect Namgoong.
- Mrs. Park says this to Ki-Woo about Moon-Gwang: “Anything you need, ask her. She knows this house better than I do.”
- Ki-Jung says that Moon-Gwang survived a change in ownership.
- When she’s fired, Moon-Gwang looks back at the house. Not angry that she got fired. Worried.
- And this important setup: Mr. Park tells Ki-Taek that Moon-Gwang always ate enough for two.
- Which pays off when we see that she gives food to her husband down in the bunker.
So if you have a big surprise in the midpoint of your story, be sure to set it up properly so that the audience will buy into it.
4. SOURCE OF PAIN
There’s a startling turn of events at the end of the film when Ki-Taek plunges a knife into Mr. Park’s chest. Up to that moment, Ki-Taek is shown as completely non-confrontational. So how did he get to such a drastic point?
From his source of pain: the shame of the way he smells. Look at how his smell has accumulated because of his economic status:
- Wet socks hang to dry from a light fixture on the ceiling in his house.
- When his street is being fumigated, he says this: “Leave the window open. Free extermination.”
- To make matters worse, a drunk man repeatedly urinates right next to his window.
Now let’s see how the Park family brings this shame to light:
- The young Da-Song notices that the Kim family members all smell the same.
- When the Kim family hides under the coffee table, Mr. Park is heard saying that it smells like Mr. Kim in the living room. That boiled rag smell.
- When Ki-Taek drives Mrs. Park, she grimaces and opens the window. Ki-Taek notices this and smells his own shirt.
- And finally, Mr. Park recoils at the smell of Geun-Sae, Moon-Gwang’s husband from the bunker. Ki-Taek sees this and finally snaps.
So remember: don’t forget about your characters’ source of pain to help explain their behaviors.
5. CHARACTER MIRRORING
There’s an interesting thing that occurs with the characters in Parasite: characters from each family mirror each other. This blurs the line even further between protagonist and antagonist.
- Both Ki-Taek and Mrs. Park are introduced while they sleep. They seem to share some kind of connection when they shake hands in the sauna.
- It’s also interesting that the two characters shown using the bathtub, Mr. Park and Ki-Jung, are the two characters from each family that are stabbed.
- Min says this about the young Da-Hye: “I’m serious. When she gets to university, I’ll officially ask her out.” His friend, Ki-Woo, later says the exact same thing to his family.
- Ki-Taek and Geun-Sae are the two men that live in the bunker. We learn that both men had a Taiwanese cake shop that went under.
- Chung-Sook and Moon-Gwang are the two housekeepers. They’re both hefty, vicious fighters.
- And finally, both families exhibit strong preferential treatment towards the sons.
So notice how each daughter eventually erupts: Ki-Jung yells at her father to pay attention to her, not the Driver Yoon, and Da-Hye admonishes her mother for not asking her if she wanted chapa-guri noodles, when she asked Da-Song and even her father.
When you have a story with blurred lines between antagonists and protagonists, be sure to show their similarities as well as their differences.
Having seen all of Bong Joon-ho’s movies now, I think it’s safe to say that he enjoys foreshadowing in his films. Clever moments of foreshadowing will go undetected by the audience, but still give us subtle clues as to what’s coming up next. Let’s see what foreshadowing occurs in the screenplay for Parasite:
- Ki-Taek flicks a stink bug off table → The Park family hates the Kim family’s smell.
- There’s a folded crease on the pizza box → Ki-Taek later says that rich people have no creases.
- Ki-Taek looks out from the barred window as Chung-Sook argues with the pizza supervisor → Ki-Taek lives in the prison of his bunker.
- Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung try to pressure the pizza supervisor into giving him the job → They later scheme with Mrs. Park to get the entire family jobs.
- When Yoon drives Ki-Jung home, two men in a traffic accident fight over a phone. → Later, the Kim family fights with Moon-Gwang and Geun-Sae over her phone.
- Ki-Woo and Ki-Taek throw water on the drunkard, and Ki-Jung says it’s a deluge → The family later comes home to a real deluge.
- Mr. Park tells Ki-Taek, both dressed as Indians, they’ll “attack” Jessica as she holds the cake → Geun-Sae actually attacks Jessica as she holds the cake.
Foreshadowing is a great technique. Have fun with it in your screenplay.
7. MODERN TECHNOLOGY AND SCREENWRITING
As screenwriters, we can’t deny the truth anymore. When we have characters solving problems in modern-day stories, the audience will always ask this question: Why wouldn’t they just use their phone? So let’s look at how Parasite efficiently answers this question as the use of technology is seamlessly and realistically incorporated into the story:
- The opening scene starts with Ki-Woo unable to steal wi-fi from the neighbor.
- The family watches an online video to help them fold pizza boxes.
- Ki-Woo’s friend Min shows him a photo of the Parks’ daughter on his phone.
- As Ki-Woo and Ki-Taek throw water on the drunk man, Ki-Jung films it in slow motion.
- Ki-Taek takes a fake selfie at the hospital, photographing Moon-Gwang in the background.
- Ki-Taek alerts Ki-Jung of his arrival with a text message. Mrs. Park sends a text to Ki-Taek to meet her in the sauna.
- The housekeeper, Moon-Gwang, takes a video of the Kim family and threatens to send it to Mrs. Park as blackmail.
- And since they’re in a concrete bunker, the audience’s question is answered when Ki-Taek asks Ki-Jung if there’s a signal down there. She says yes.
- As the family hides under the coffee table, Da-Hye sends Ki-Woo a text. Chung-Sook coughs to alert Ki-Woo to silence his phone.
- And finally, they integrate old-school and modern technology when Ki-Woo records his vocalized sounds of the Morse code.
So, as you can see, integrating smartphones into a modern story makes characters act in a more believable manner.
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Daniel Lee is the creator of Script Sleuth, a YouTube channel dedicated to helping screenwriters find screenwriting secrets in the greatest films of all time. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker, and plays classical guitar.