The transcript is edited for length and clarity.
Parasite: Theme, Tone, and Structure
In my last podcast, we discussed Parasite and the way tone is used in the film. We compared Parasite to Little Miss Sunshine, another Academy Award-winning film that uses tone in interesting and unusual ways, and we talked about the difference between tone and genre and how that plays out in both these films.
In this podcast, I want to dive even deeper into Parasite and look at the place where tone meets theme. I want to look at how the theme of Parasite ends up informing the tone and structure of the film.
Bong Joon-ho, the writer/director, created this film without even knowing where he was going or what happens in the second half of the story. We’re going to talk about how he achieved that, by allowing tone, structure, and thematic exploration to help the movie unfold in front of him.
Parasite is built around a question: Who is the parasite?
Previously, we talked about how Bong was interested in the idea of infiltration when he started writing the script. But in the title, Parasite, he really focuses on the meaning of that theme. This is a story about parasitic infiltration. This is about the way our society views each other as parasites. It’s about the way the rich view the poor as parasites, the way the poor view the rich as parasites, and the way the poor view the underclass as parasites.
In a way, what he’s really looking at is our political situation and the ongoing class wars we’re experiencing around the world.
The question Bong is asking is one that he doesn’t necessarily fully know the answer to, and that’s what makes his exploration so interesting and compelling.
Many writers, especially political writers, confuse the concepts of theme and moral.
They think they’re exploring a theme, but what they’re actually doing is trying to impose their moral point of view on the audience. Often, the result is very bad movies– movies that not only fail dramatically but also fail to influence anyone politically, at least not anyone who doesn’t already believe what the writer believes.
A great writer, instead of pretending they have the answer, admits it’s never that simple. They try to instead pose a question to themselves that they’re not fully capable of answering, a question they’re going to have to wrestle with on the page in order to make some sense of it.
When you work in this way, you not only take the audience on a journey, you take yourself on a journey.
You force yourself to challenge your assumptions and easy answers and to look for something closer to the truth. Along the way, you’re going to end up writing a movie or TV show that’s a lot more convincing to your audience, especially to those who may believe something different than you.
The bad version of Parasite, from one political point of view, might say, “You know what the problem is? The problem is the rich.”
It might say “The rich are parasites living off the poor, sucking up all the resources off the backs of the good, poor, hard-working folks who just want to do right. These rich parasites are taking everything for their own selfish aims. Those nasty one-percenters.”
The bad version of this movie from the opposite point of view, says, “You know what the problem is? The problem is the poor. The poor are parasites feeding off the rich. They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because anyone can make it. I started with nothing, and now I’m a one-percenter. The poor just need to stop thinking of themselves as welfare cases and take responsibility for their lives. They need to stop being parasites.”
A more complicated, but also bad, version from this point of view would be, “You know who the problem really is? It isn’t the middle class. It’s the really poor, the poorer than poor people. It isn’t the legal immigrants; it’s the illegal immigrants. It isn’t the poor; it’s the homeless. They’re the parasites.”
Just to be clear, I don’t believe in any of these points of view.
But what’s important is to understand that these points of view are out there in the world and have a hold on people. Our job as writers is to wrestle with those ideas and ask ourselves what is closer to the truth.
Bad political movies try to preach a moral. They try to find clear-cut good guys and bad guys. But we know the real world is much more complicated.
To wax political for a second, bad politics does the same thing. Bad politics casts pure villains and pure good guys. Bad politics says, “The rich are bad or the poor are bad. This group is bad and this group is good.” We all know the truth is so much more complicated.
With Parasite, Bong asks a question he doesn’t actually know the answer to.
He sees that people can be parasites, so he asks the question, “Who is the parasite?” He then builds the structure in a way to make you ask that question. He’s not out to preach a moral to you, but to show you a complicated, socio-political landscape that reflects our socio-political landscape. It’s an allegory to help you understand a bit more of the complexity of what’s really going on.
What’s interesting is Bong doesn’t start the movie by saying…and there’s a spoiler here…
He doesn’t start writing the movie by saying “You know what’s going to happen at the end? It’s going to turn into a horror movie because the poor dad is going to kill the wealthy man who has employed him. He’s going to kill him because he’s so disgusted and offended by the wealthy’s man’s disrespect for him and the way this man treats him for how he smells.”
This isn’t how Bong starts off, because Bong doesn’t know it’s turning into a horror movie that will end with a murder. He doesn’t even know what the second half of the piece is. He just knows he’s interested in infiltration. He’s playing around with this idea of, “Who is the parasite in a world where everyone is viewing each other as parasites?”
This is a very sensitive movie made by a writer/director with a very profound social conscience. I don’t think at the end of the day Bong is going to come out on the side of the wealthy, but he’s not going to demonize them either.
He’s going to look at them honestly, as part of a social problem, and try to shed a little light on what’s creating the violence in our society that we’re all seeing: violence towards the poor, violence towards the rich, and violence among the poor. What is creating the feeling of parasitism. What is making us act like parasites?
Because Bong is a great filmmaker, he starts Parasite by weighting the argument against his own point of view.
Rather than starting with a parasitic rich family, he starts with the parasitic poor family. This family is lovely, funny, and adorable. They love the heck out of each other, which allows us to love them even as they do some nasty things. They live in a tiny, underground home that is the exact opposite of the elegant, extraordinary, and expansive home they’ll discover their rich patrons live in.
When we first meet them, they’re trying to get hired as pizza box folders, even though they’re doing a really terrible job at it. All this family wants is to get their cell phone service turned back on, to have just one tiny bit of something nice. They are the have-nots; they have absolutely nothing.
Then, the son is given a unique opportunity. He’s going to become the tutor for a rich, young girl that his friend has been tutoring and fallen in love with. His friend is waiting for her to come of age so he can finally ask her out, and he’s terrified some other tutor will fall in love with her the same way he has. So, his friend asks him to become the tutor. This job is going to mean more money than he’s ever seen before in his life. It’s going to change his life and his family’s life.
Of course, he agrees and becomes the girl’s tutor. He’s great at it, but he’s not content. What happens is, another opportunity presents itself. He finds out that this rich family also has a troubled, little boy who is an artist.
We find out later that this little boy has seen a ghost, or what he believes to be a ghost. It’s haunting him, and his mother is extremely worried about him. The new tutor takes advantage of this in a simple way with a tiny, manipulative lie, which brings his sister into the situation as an art teacher.
It turns out his sister is also very talented as an art teacher, but things then go from very light to a little more dark. The sister really preys on the mom’s fear and concern, which is how she secures that teaching job for herself. By the end of the sequence, she’s also laid a little trap for a complete innocent, the rich family’s driver. This trap will get the driver fired and destroy his livelihood, so that she can get her dad the job of driving the car.
We begin to see the parasitic infiltration the title Parasite refers to. This poor family, that used to be a bunch of sweet have-nots, are suddenly acting like cold, hard capitalists and crushing the competition by any means necessary.
Not content with the new windfall of one teaching job and then another, they now want something more and start becoming more parasitic in the way they try to get it.
Now, their father is driving the family car, the son and daughter are tutoring, and they’re still not content. Even though they’re now making more money than they could have ever imagined, their mother still doesn’t have a job. In order to get Mom a job, they’re going to become even more parasitic.
They’re going to force out the kindly housekeeper, a woman who has been with this family forever, who is practically a second mother to these children, and who has been a part of this house even before this family moved in. They soon find a twisted, parasitic way to push her out as well.
You can see what’s happening tonally. Parasite starts light with only a few hints that it’s going to become dark.
We have the title, Parasite, which casts a darkness over what we’re seeing. We have the location and feeling of that underground home. Finally, we have one small genre element: a giant landscape stone that we know is going to turn into a murder weapon. We’ve seen enough horror movies to know this giant stone, that the son’s friend has given the family as a gift, looks dangerous.
But these are really the only signs of horror happening at this point.
Just as we discussed in the last podcast, in Little Miss Sunshine the only real signs of comedy at the beginning are the title and a couple of little moments that let us in by saying, “Don’t worry. If you’re hoping for a comedy, it will come.” In Parasite, it’s those similar little moments in the beginning that tell us, “Don’t worry. If you’re hoping for a horror movie, it will come.”
Gradually, structurally, what’s happening is the situation is getting more and more parasitic. You can see how simple that structure is too. Get the son a job. Get the daughter a job. Get the dad a job. Get the mom a job.
Great screenplay structure is always simple. The hard part is figuring it out.
In your final draft, your structure will be that simple too. You’ll be able to bang it out and know how it all happened in relation to the theme. You’ll say, “Oh, I get it. Four people get jobs, and with each job they become a little more parasitic. Why do they become more parasitic? Because they get sucked into the societal world of money, of having. That having makes them want to have more and protect the things they have.”
In fact, halfway through the movie, they and their rich patrons have almost switched places. The rich patrons are out on a trip and the family is having a big party in the house. They’re treating the house as if it was their own, even though in order to get it they pushed out the good people who were there.
It sounds a lot like our socio-political system, what happens when there’s no safety net, and where everyone is fighting for a scarcity of resources. So with each little job, they grow more parasitic. They grow more wealthy, and they hurt more people as they try to get more and hold on to what they have.
Halfway into the movie, through a little filmmaking trick, we get to feel like they have arrived. They’re celebrating. They feel like they’re now the wealthy, even though their wealth is such a tiny fraction of the whole. It’s just the one day on vacation for the family that they serve.
You can see how that also relates to our current political and financial system worldwide. The polarization of wealth, the promise of good things like job growth and job creation for people who have so little, is such that they can’t even fathom the power and the resources of the people who are paying them.
We’ve got a very complicated situation here with the poor family growing more parasitic, but also growing economically. They’re doing more harm as they infiltrate this family, but they’re also moving up in the class system.
And we’re having a great time watching it.
The reason we’re having a great time watching Parasite is because of tone. With less humor, this piece would be so dark. It would not suck you in because it would just douse you with ugliness.
But this family loves each other so much, and they’re so cute and funny that we can forgive their manipulations. We can forgive the lives they destroy. We can forgive the choices they make because we know where they’re coming from.
What’s also really beautiful in this first half of Parasite is how we get to see the other side, the wealthy family.
When we first meet the wealthy family, we’re seeing them as a stereotype. We’re seeing them as the parasitic wealthy: the out of touch, aloof, cold depiction of the one-percent we like to imagine and demonize.
But over the course of this first half, we start to see what’s lovely about them. We start to see they have kids who are lovely, but who also have problems. We start to see that this young, rich girl is also potentially getting exploited, not only by her first tutor, but now by her second.
We start to see that the little boy is haunted by demons and that his wealthy mother, as repugnant as her level of wealth might be, is just a mom trying to help her kid. We see that while the dad has a certain aloofness and classism to him, even he is humanized in his relationship.
We have this structure where a family that we love becomes more and more parasitic, and the family that we initially saw as wealthy parasites becomes more and more human.
Then, bang! Halfway through the movie, at the moment we call in my Write Your Screenplay class the “sea change.”
Another door is opened, literally in this case. This is when the movie switches and becomes more and more of a horror movie.
In the middle of the party the family is having while their rich patrons are away, the old housekeeper shows up again and begs them to let her in. Once they do so, she goes down beneath the garage to the basement where her husband is secretly living, like a ghost in the house.
Bong makes a very interesting decision in Parasite here, which is to take the genre element of the haunted house and treat a character who is actually alive like a ghost that’s haunting it.
But that is often the way we see the underclass, as if they were terrifying ghosts from another world, instead of real people.
In fact, the ghost haunting the house that the little boy saw is just a man the rest of society has turned its back on. That’s what is haunting him psychologically, not an imagined ghost, but a real man that no one else sees. Why is this man living in his house? Because he lost everything and isn’t safe. People are coming for him, and he has to disappear because he has no safety net.
What happens now is the lower class finds the underclass. And, just as happens in our country, rather than asking how they can help each other, the lower class and the underclass try to push each other down so they can hold on to what they have.
The underclass tries to regain their rightful place in the home, while the newly lower class tries to push the underclass down so they don’t lose what they fought for.
The horror in Parasite doesn’t grow out of trying to make a horror movie, even though Bong is playing with those genre elements. The horror grows out of this resentment between three different levels of class.
It grows and grows and grows until the ghost haunting the house is transformed into a real monster by the violence he experiences.
It grows until the father, who starts the movie as a joyful, jovial, carefree man who just wants to get his cell phone reconnected, turns into the slasher movie monster. What transforms him? A series of insults about his smell and a feeling that no matter how much he tries to grow or change, he will always be the underclass. He will always be where he came from.
What takes place is the brutal murder of a man who’s not a good guy, but who’s also not a bad guy. He’s a man who’s dressed up in a Native American headdress (for a reason), in order to play a game with his kid. He’s a guy who wants to protect his family, just like everybody else in the piece.
That’s what’s so beautiful about Parasite. Through a really interesting exploration of the question “Who is the parasite?” Bong manages to both humanize and demonize everyone.
He shows us how the social friction of competition for limited resources, of trying to hold on to what’s yours, and the feeling of class and the misunderstandings between us cause us to treat each other like monsters and ghosts and demons. He shows us how the desire to take care of our families gets twisted and turned, until we all end up acting like parasites toward one another.
This is what makes Parasite a great movie.
In your writing, this is how you develop your structure. You begin not by looking for the answer, what you want to show, or even necessarily the ending, but by saying, “What am I interested in?”
You begin not by trying to write a horror movie or a comedy, but by letting your characters talk and do things, by figuring out what your characters want.
You begin not with a moral you want to teach your audience, but with a question, you want to understand. You begin not by trying to prove something, but by trying to poke holes in what you believe.
This is how we grow as writers. This is how we write that revolutionary material that allows people to see one another through more empathetic eyes.
As we head into election season and all the craziness we’re about to go through in our political system, I would suggest that this is also what makes us a better society and a better community.
It’s not by trying to win points or prove ourselves right, but rather by looking for the gaps in our own theories. It’s not by trying to demonize the other, but by trying to understand them.
This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be a nice guy. In fact, in Parasite we learn that everyone has the ability to be a parasite. This is especially true when we’re caught up in a parasitic system that pits people against each other, when people feel scared and desperate, and when we believe one another to be demons and ghosts.