A South Korean film with a traditional narrative structure…? What does it mean? Let’s use the Korean rom-com Penny pinchers to find out;
The monomyth is a theory by American mythologist Joseph Campbell, who compared thousands of major stories/tales around the world, and saw the narrative similarities between them all. His idea: the structure of stories are almost the same everywhere, hence the name of his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It helps to understand the way *we* have been telling stories since forever, giving details about the symbolic behind this structure — things we naturally understand.
His work influenced many people, including that guy named Christopher Vogler, who used the theory to differentiate between a good script and a bad script — structurally speaking. At the time he was working at Disney and wrote a digest version of Campbell’s work. It rapidly made an impression on Hollywood writers, and Vogler later decided to develop his version, it’s called The Writer’s Journey — as the title suggests, it’s not a cookbook for writers to create successful stories, the structure has to appear naturally in front of writers.
What follows in this article, is a mix between Campbell & Vogler’s work, it’s inspired by another digest version from former ‘Community’ showrunner Dan Harmon, who published online few years ago this insightful ‘short’ version focusing on the essential points — it’s not filled with too much symbolism, it gives more practical examples!
# THE STRUCTURE
The following narrative structure is circular, divided into 8 individual steps, each one has its own purpose. And as you’re about to see, opposite steps can have common elements/meanings, it often underlines the evolution of the character’s journey — it can be someone or something that will suddenly become useful in the story.
OK, here we go!
# AN EXAMPLE: PENNY PINCHERS
Penny Pinchers is a 2011 South Korean film, it’s basically a rom-com with an original subject showing how young Koreans are struggling to make ends meet in the current economy. Beyond that point, SPOILERS EVERYWHERE!
It’s the beginning of the story, the time to establish the main character so that the audience can connect with the film, it’s the entry point into the adventure.
Here, the introduction is quite simple, the camera reveals empty bottles, shoes, then the body and finally the face of a young man (played by Song Joong-ki) waking up with a hangover — you can already assume this is going to be a comedy, the colors are sweet, and there’s the “jump,” plus the way this character reacts: he’s goofy and a little bit cocky.
What are his problems? He’s (happily) part of the “880,000won generation” as he doesn’t really make any serious effort to get a job — remember the funny interviews — despite the fact he could really use the money to pay the bills.
His prime interest? The material girl from the Vespa club, he’s ready to lie to seduce her, which creates a vicious circle — she doesn’t date people because she like them. So, he has to find a way to get to the next level with that lady: he needs money.
The character has been kidding around, acting like a child, and is forced to get out of his comfort zone: he’s been evicted. That’s pretty much when the other girl (actress Han Ye-seul), seen during the introduction, has the idea to make an alliance with him.
She’s literally the supernatural aid — the jump — that is to say, the character that will guide the young man through this difficult period. We’ll see a little bit later why she could have been completely introduced at step 3, instead of showing her right at the beginning only to reassure the audience that this is a rom-com (and so, the writer presents her problems too at step 2 — which can be confusing: what’s her connection with the main character for instance?).
#4 SEARCH/ADAPT/ROAD OF TRIALS
It’s now time to learn how to survive with no money, and more importantly, how to make money from nothing! The girl will teach him many tricks, recycling bottles, selling old objects or fake autographs… The main character has to adapt to his new situation, it can be difficult, he’s discovering another way to live his life.
This is the mid-point of the story, the moment when the character finds what he really wanted. He has money, he can finally act like a playboy and date the material girl — she’s the temptress. She really wants expensive shoes? That’s what money is for, right? Hum…
But, he must face the consequences of his choices: by spending money unwisely, he broke his promise to his guide. It’s like he hasn’t learned anything. At the same time, he learns why the girl helped him. They realize they have taken advantage of each other to get money, and they’ve also both been duped. That kills their alliance. They split up.
The story is slowly coming to its end, the main character has understood his true feelings for the girl, but when walking together on a bridge, she tries to kill herself. The guy can’t stop her from jumping, but driven by love, he makes the jump — notice that it’s now his turn to jump, to come to her rescue.
Remember, the narrative structure works like a circle, that’s why one can guess the girl would have been perfectly introduced at step #3: she’s the one who made the awkward jump on the roof. The writer decided otherwise, the girl has an emotional drama explaining her behavior.
(As a viewer, you may have experienced a loss of interest by now, this character has been overwritten, affecting the balance of the film.)
Another interesting point, they’re saved, and brought to a hospital in an ambulance. That moment is also called the ‘magical flight’ as the characters, here, need an external help to come back to their starting point/’original situation’.
Because the main character has lived an adventure, and realized the differences between what he wanted — the material girl, the lies, the money — and what he really needs — the girl, honesty, true human interaction — he’s now going to help the girl. He’s understood the lesson: he sells things he doesn’t need so that he can get the girl what she needs.
Once again, step 8 is the opposite of step 4. There’s a sense of continuity as the character is now helping the girl, as well as taking seriously what he learned from her. That’s it!
«You know all of this instinctively. You are a storyteller. You were born that way. —Dan Harmon»