Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite
In Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019), the protagonist is a family. I will refer to them as the Family.
The Family’s son is Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi), daughter Ki-Jung (So-dam Park), father Ki-Tek (Kang-ho Song) and mother Chung-Sook (Hye-jin Jang).
The Park family’s mother is Yon-Kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hae (Ji-so Jung) and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).
Housekeeper is Mun-Kwang (Jeong-eun Lee), and her husband is Kun-sae (Myeong-hoon Park).
Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung look for a wi-fi signal in their bathroom because their phones have been disconnected for failing to pay their bills and the neighbor whose internet they’ve been scrounging password-protected their wi-fi service. In their semi-basement apartment, they rise on top of a raised toilet to catch a signal—their desperation to connect with the world in order to earn their living is comical but poignant.
The Family make a meagre living folding pizza boxes. They’re accustomed to talk their way out of problems and sweet-talk their way into resolving issues to get better pay. They even keep their windows open during neighborhood fumigation to kill crickets in their apartment for free. Despite being jobless and unable to continue their education, they are smart and amusing. But most importantly they are relentless in their pursuit of what they need to survive.
Their window may be a convenient public toilet for homeless drunks, but they have the right attitude to have a laugh and make life work.
Ki-Woo’s college student friend Min-Hyuk shows up unannounced. He brings a viewing stone as a gift, which is meant to bring luck and money. The Family finds the gift symbolic and serendipitous. This is the symbolic Catalyst for the Family’s internal journey and will reveal what money will bring to their internal lives.
Min-Hyuk also brings a Catalyst to kick off the Family’s external journey. He tells Ki-Woo that a rich high school student that he’s tutoring needs a replacement tutor while he’s studying abroad. Could Ki-Woo take his place until he returns? Min-Hyuk adds that he’s planning on asking the girl out when she comes of age. Even though Ki-Woo is not a college student, Min-Hyuk says he’s even more capable than those who are and, plus, Ki-Woo is his only friend he trusts to hand over his future wife. And just like that, Ki-Woo is up for an interview for a well-paying job and has the potential to increase his family’s earnings.
Ki-Jung, who has been failing art school exams, is crafty enough to forge a college certificate of enrollment for Ki-Woo. The Family is impressed by their daughter’s forgery skills and are already brimming with pride for their son’s future success. Aware of the irony of not having achieved anything to deserve their respect, Ki-Woo says this is merely a precursor to what he’s planning on doing with his life: go to college and get rich; so how is this a lie and a crime?
Ki-Tek says, “That’s my son. Man with a plan.” This idea of having a plan will come up between them again and will become a thematic thread throughout the film. Is there any point in having a plan for poor people like them? How likely is it that they will achieve it, or even if they do, couldn’t it all go away in an instant? Let’s explore the possibilities of their life plans coming to fruition in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor feels unbridgeable and find out just how unbridgeable this gap really is.
Debate – Break into Two – Debate – Break into Two / Kalashnikov Effect!
The first question that arises from the film’s Catalyst is: will Ki-Woo be able to get the job? But this is only one of the dramatic questions that will lead us into Act II. The overarching dramatic question for the protagonist, as in the whole Family is: will the Family be able to get out of poverty?
Parasite has a unique and progressive First Act Break (which is often a single scene) and it responds to multiple dramatic questions that rise only after the previous one is resolved. Here’s how it flows:
Debate I: Will Ki-Woo get the job?
Act I Break I: Ki-Woo gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Jung a job as an art teacher for Da-Song.
Debate II: Will Ki-Jung get the job?
Act I Break II: Ki-Jung gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Tek a job as the Parks’ new driver.
Debate III: Will the Parks get fooled into firing their driver and give Ki-Tek the job?
Act I Break III: The Parks fire their driver and Ki-Tek gets the job. Then the three of them figure out a way for Chung-Sook to replace the housekeeper.
Debate IV: Will they be able to get Mun-Kwang (the housekeeper) kicked out, and then have Chung-Sook replace her?
Act I Break IV: Mun-Kwang is successfully eliminated; Chung-Sook gets the job. The Family has infiltrated the Parks’ house.
Each Debate question presents a tougher challenge for the Family, and in turn each Act Break is harder to achieve. The end result—leading up to the final Act Break—is increasingly more surprising and satisfying.
Fun & Games
The Family have settled into their roles within the Parks household. It’s been tough but they’ve made it and now they get to enjoy it. They playfully go about fulfilling their tasks at the periphery of the rich.
There’s a small but significant glitch, however. Little Da-Song can smell something. Not knowing that all four live in the same house, Da-Song exclaims: they all smell the same. The dank basement smell they all share is a tragicomic challenge to their plan that suggests they may have the smarts to pull this off, but their smell gives away where they come from, who they are. Suddenly, we get a whiff of the internal conflict of the film: they can change their circumstances, but can they fake where they really come from? Can the poor ever belong with the rich?
When the Parks family go on a camping trip for the night, they get to enjoy the house as a family. If only they can sustain the pretense, life can be safe, enjoyable and ‘rich’ just like this.
If ever there was a love story filled with passion, admiration, jealousy and longing, it is the love story between the Family and the Parks, i.e. the poor and the wealthy. The Family needs the Parks to fill the great voids in their lives: money, comfort, warmth, ease, relaxation and joy.
The Family’s flirtation with wealth is palpable in the sequence where Ki-Woo reads his student (and now girlfriend) Da-Hae’s journal in her comfy bed; Ki-Jung takes a bubble bath flicking channels on TV; Chung-Sook enjoys a peaceful nap on the sofa; Ki-Tek steams in the sauna and gets a taste of the numerous whiskeys and gourmet snacks in the cabinet. And they all enjoy the ultimate luxury: drinking bottled Evian water.
This is where their plan got them, but how long will this romance last?
They all individually enjoyed the house and the riches that it offers. Now, they sit in the living room together as a family watching the rain falling outside, sipping whiskey. They give thanks to the Parks for bringing all of this into their lives, even drink to Ki-Woo marrying Da-Hae in the future and the two families uniting as one.
But then, Mun-Kwang, the previous housekeeper, shows up at their door—an ominous presence reminding them of who they used to be and still are. Midpoint is usually a positive note that is the reverse of the All is Lost. But sometimes, if the contrast between the bad (Midpoint) and the worse (All is Lost) is big enough, Midpoint can be a foreshadowing of the All is Lost. In this case Mun-Kwang’s breach of their fun times is only the beginning of the end for them.
Bad Guys Close in
Mun-Kwang looks grotesque—a reminder of what it’s like to be Outside of the bubble of the Parks’ house. From here on out, progressively unimaginable misfortunes will pile on the Family.
The Family discover that Mun-Kwang has been keeping her husband Kun-Sae in a bunker in the basement for the last four years to protect him from the mob to whom he owes money for his failed business.
Now, the symbolism of the internal journey of the characters is worth a mention here: Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae are the original parasites of the house feeding on the rich, but they’re also physically beneath the Parks’ living space, suggesting the rich is upheld by the poor, and that there must be a symbiotic relationship between the two classes; the rich are able to rise thanks to the work of the poor in a system of unforgiving hierarchy, and the poor are able survive by bottom feeding on the rich. This is the system the Family is now a part of.
Mun-Kwang pleads with her successor Chung-Sook: we’re all in the same boat, help me! But Chung-Sook isn’t about to give up on her newfound wealth and threatens to call the cops. But then, the rest of the Family spills out of the staircase and Mun-Kwang realizes that the tutor, the art teacher, the driver and the housekeeper are all related and have their own scheme in operation. Embittered by Chung-Sook’s refusal to help her, Mun-Kwang threatens to send Yon-Kyo a video to reveal the Family’s scheme even if it means that her own scheme will fail along with it. A battle ensues.
The shocking news of Mun-Kwang and the palpable conflict between the two set of parasites is bad enough, but then the Parks cancel their camping trip due to torrential rain and decide to retreat to their cozy home. Ki-Tek must put Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae back in the basement; Chung-Sook is tasked with cooking Da-Song’s favorite dish; Ki-Woo must put Da-Hae’s journal back under her bed and help Ki-Jung in the impossible task of clearing up their decadent mess in the living room in under eight minutes.
It’s a cat-and-mouse effort to put everything back together and hide from the Parks as they innocently settle back in. Eventually the Family almost manage to sneak out, but Da-Song decides to camp in the garden under the rain and the parents happily settle down on the sofa to keep an eye on their beloved son. Ki-Tek, Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung get stuck under the coffee table inches from the Parks, close enough that the Parks can smell them.
Up until now we’ve been watching obstacle after obstacle to the Family’s external journey of clinging to their big break. When Dong-ik begins talking about Ki-Tek’s disgusting smell, bad guys begin to close in on the Family’s internal journey: they can get a taste for what it’s like to be rich, but can they EVER fit in?
Shame and fatigue descend on all of them when they not only have to endure the insults, but also witness the rich couple engage in a sex fantasy at their expense. As ridiculously obvious and cringing as this scene is, its effect is a deathblow on particularly Ki-Tek. He is transformed from his happy-go-lucky self we met in Act I into a devastated carcass of himself.
When they finally make it out of the house undetected there’s no joy in their walk back home; they’re forever mimed by the Parks’ piercing words.
But it’s not over yet! As they transition from the rich neighborhood of the Parks to theirs, they find that their whole neighborhood is flooded, sewage backflowing into their houses. They walk chest-deep into the brown waters of their house to save a few of their belongings. Ki-Woo uselessly rescues the viewing stone that was meant to bring money and luck.
Ki-Jung smokes sitting on top of the toilet seat that’s pushing up against her with sewage water—an expressive picture of a moment of peace for the poor.
All is Lost
Meanwhile in the bunker, Mun-Kwang takes her last breath. This death/loss may seem insignificant since Mun-Kwang was not a member of the Family. But since the story revolves around the Family’s losses in the pursuit of the rich life, their first murder becomes a sign of the humanity they’ve sacrificed along the way. This is exacerbated by the fact that Mun-Kwang was the only one of them who epitomized honesty, integrity and solidarity among her own kind, and so her death is a significant loss for them all.
Dark Night of the Soul
As Kun-Sae beats his head against the switches on the wall sending messages to the ether about his grief over his wife, Ki-Tek is in a dark place after getting insulted under rich people’s coffee table and then seeing their home sink into an underwater sewage. While Ki-Woo clings to the viewing stone as if to dear life, Ki-Tek has abandoned all hope: None of these people planned to evacuate their homes and end up on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers, he says. “If you don’t plan, you can’t fail.” He no longer wishes his son to be “a man with a plan”, because after the journey they’ve been through, he knows, “nothing matters.”
Break into Three
Yon-Kyo finds the heavy rain that ruined their camping trip to be a “blessing in disguise” and plans a birthday party for Da-Song in their garden. Ki-Tek must accompany her as she shops for wine and gourmet food; Chung-Sook must set up the garden with tables around Da-Song’s tent to surprise him when he wakes up; Da-Song’s favorite teacher Ki-Jung is to bring in the cake and Ki-Woo is invited as Da-Hae’s special guest.
The Family is no longer stuck in the poverty-stricken world of Act I, but nor are they enjoying or suffering through the world of Act II. In this new day, Ki-Tek is unable to experience gratitude or awe; every sign of wealth and joy makes his skin crawl. Even Ki-Woo, instead of enjoying Da-Hae and his newfound fortune, says “Do I look like I belong in this house?”
We are now in Act III that brings together Act I and Act II, and shows us what happens when the two merge.
The entire birthday party is the bulk of Act III. Kun-Sae flees the bunker seeking revenge for his wife. All hell breaks loose and a violent fight between the Family and Kun-Sae ensues, sending Da-Song into a frightful seizure.
Here, the separation between the rich and the poor is more striking than ever. The Parks ignore the dying Ki-Jung, and Kun-Sae’s vicious attack on Chung-Sook does not concern them. They expect Ki-Tek to drive them to the hospital for Da-Song. As Ki-Tek is busy trying to save Ki-Jung’s life, Dong-ik bends over them to grab the car keys. Dong-ik’s reaction to their smell is what becomes the final straw for Ki-Tek.
Ki-Tek kills Dong-ik with an axe; Ki-Jung is dead; Ki-Woo is heavily injured; Chung-Sook kills Kun-Sae and barely hangs on to life. The birthday party turns into a bloody pandemonium.
A while later, the brain-damaged Ki-Woo looks for Ki-Tek who disappeared after the birthday party. He spies the Parks’ house from a hill that overlooks the rich neighborhood and figures out that Ki-Tek is hiding out in the bunker. He deciphers Ki-Tek’s coded letter to him delivered via the blinking lights of the house.
In his letter, Ki-Tek tells his son that he’s surviving by feeding off of another rich family that moved into the house after the Parks. Moved by his father’s letter, Ki-Woo does what Ki-Tek advised him not to do: he makes a plan to go to college, get rich, buy the house and rescue his father.
As Ki-Woo is perched in the cold night on a hill overlooking the rich neighborhood and pondering how he’s going to get in touch with Ki-Tek to encourage him to hang in there until he makes his big break, he’s experiencing the kind of disconnection the Family was experiencing in the opening scene of the movie when they were looking for a wi-fi signal to connect with the rest of the world.
Now, far more brutally and tragically, Ki-Woo is face to face with the enormity of his disconnection with the world of the rich and the Family’s distance from happiness and peace.
–Image Credit: UK poster by Andrew Bannister for Curzon Releasing.