Film structure can all too often be something that’s thought of as rote or paint-by-numbers approach. Sometimes a writer thinks, “Well, if these actions happen by these pages, then I’ve written a perfect movie!” This, sadly, is far from the truth, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Structure is vitally important to telling a compelling story, and films that follow the exact same structure often end up looking like completely different beasts. Still, when you get right down to their bones, the similarities are shocking.
Let’s take a look at the first act of two movies that, on the surface, could not appear less alike: LEGALLY BLONDE and PARASITE, but, at their core, have very similar DNA.
THE HOOK: Mrs. Warner Hunter, the Third
LEGALLY BLONDE was written by Karen Mucula and Kirsten Smith, and is the delightful tale of a young woman following her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law (What like it’s hard?). Who through a series of challenges and new relationships, finally kicks her ex to the curb in order to pursue the law and her life with confidence and joie de vivre in her signature pink looks.
The movie opens on Elle Woods, blonde bombshell and President of Delta Nu. She’s in the midst of getting ready for a big night as she just knows that she’s about to get engaged to the love of her life, Warner Hunter, the third. She collects her Prada accouterments and, cheered on by the rest of her sorority; she sails out the door toward her future.
Inciting Incident: The Break-Up
Unfortunately for Elle, Warner has other ideas, and he breaks up with her at dinner. He tells her, “If I’m going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie O, not a Marilyn Monroe.” Shocked, Elle asks him if he’s, “Breaking up with me because I’m too blonde?” He says he needs someone serious. She insists that she is, but he just tells her not to ruin her shoes.
After a bit of emotional wallowing, Elle sees a picture of Warner at Harvard Law with his new girlfriend, and she realizes she needs to become a law student to win him back. Her school counselor tells her she’ll need a 175 on the LSAT to get in; Elle passes the test (at minute 18:31) and gets accepted! Some would say this is the end of act one. It has all the trademarks. I say there has to be a reverb/reaction/complication.
The “Refusal of the Call” If You Will
Elle lands in Boston, but she’s not in Kansas anymore. There’s lots of animosity and doubt whenever she shows up, tiny dog in tow, but her infectious positivity wins us (and eventually) everyone around her over.
Bring on the Subplots!
At Harvard, everyone introduces themselves in the small group time at orientation. They all will be subplots that are explored in Act Two. David has a Master’s in Russian Literature, plus a PhD, not to mention that he’s been spending his time deworming orphans. Next in line Inid Wexler, who’s dedicated her life to Lesbians Against Drunk Driving. Then there’s Aaron Mitchell, who has an IQ of 187 and believes that Stephen Hawking stole A Brief History of time from his 4th-grade paper.
After feeling quite out of her depth with her fellow students, Elle gets thrown to the sharks in her first class as a law student. She meets Warner in the hall to remind us of the stakes, and he tells her to meet him after class. And in class, her intimidating professor informs them that “The law is reason free from passion.” After which, Elle is thrown out of class for not being prepared. Everything is now in question. To make matters worse, she learns that Vivian, who just helped get her ousted from class, is Warner’s fiance.
What’s a girl to do when she’s at her lowest? Get a manicure, of course! She heads to a salon where she meets Paulette, her new manicurist, and confidant, who encourages her to “Steal the bastard back!” To which Elle happily agrees. Boom! End of Act One.
To recap, on page ten, she’s dumped, at 20, she’s accepted into Harvard, and at 30, she vows to steal the bastard back, with all of the subplots set up and ready to go! So how does that compare to PARASITE? Let’s find out.
PARASITE: The Hook
PARASITE was written by Bong Joon Ho and Ji-Wan Han and is the unsettling tale of a lower class family that slowly infiltrates the life and home of a wealthy family only to discover that they weren’t the first to have the idea.
PARASITE opens with a definition, “An organism living in, on, or with another organism in order to obtain nutrients, grow, or multiply often in a state that directly or indirectly harms the host.” We then meet the destitute Kim family in their sub-basement apartment. They’re low on wi-fi, working together on menial jobs, and struggling to get by. A friend of the family shows up and brings them a Scholar Stone, which is said to bring wealth to families. He then offers Ki Woo, the son, a job as a tutor.
Ki Woo forges a college degree and sets out to become the tutor of the wealthy Park family. He justifies the forgery by saying he doesn’t see it that way since he hopes to attend said college next year. We quickly learn that the family doesn’t follow the rules and will do whatever they need to in order to get ahead.
Inciting Incident: The Lie
Ki Woo climbs the hill to the Park family’s house and enters a world of wealth and ease. He meets Yeon Keo and gets the job without even needing to show his forgery, and he’s in! He gets paid around the seventeen-minute mark, and he realizes that his family can get “rich” working for the Parks.
Bring on the Subplots!
In fact, it just so happens that the little boy he’s tutoring, Da Song, needs an art teacher. He immediately recommends his sister, Ki Jung. They show up the next day, and Ki Jung, as Jessica, gets the job. She insists that Da Song needs four two-hour art therapy sessions a week, and Yeon Keo agrees. The house manager and the basement are both introduced and Dong Ik, the dad of the rich family, arrives home. He tells his driver to take Ki Jung home. Boom! End of act one: brother and sister are working in the home. Act two will add more family members working in the home, and even deeper secrets and jealousies are revealed!
So, on page ten, Ki-woo decides to forge his college degree and try for the tutoring job. At 20, he’s been paid and has a plan to get his sister paid, and by 30, the wheels are in motion to get the entire family jobs inside the house. While the stories are dramatically different, at their heart, LEGALLY BLONDE and PARASITE are underpinned by the same structure. Structure doesn’t drive story, character drives it, but within the context of a film, the rhythm of those structural beats usually falls on similar pages.
Don’t believe us? Try your hand at breaking down the first act of your favorite movie. You might just be surprised by what you find! And don’t forget to come back for the next part of the series where we compare the second acts of PARASITE and LEGALLY BLONDE. You won’t want to miss it!