Pluto (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 107 minutes approx.
We all know that school is a fiercely competitive arena for some students, with those at the top desperate to stay at the top – especially if they come from an affluent family and move in circles where status is everything. At one particular exclusive Korean boarding school, the top 1% of students will stop at nothing to maintain their elite position as Shin Su-won’s Pluto explores.
Male student Yujin (Sung Joon) is found dead in the woods not far from the school grounds. The immediate suspect is recent transfer student Kim June (David Lee) who swears his innocence but with his mobile phone found with the body and the testimonies of his fellow students, the scenario doesn’t look good. However lack of evidence means June is released, allowing him to settle some old scores.
The caveat is that June isn’t entirely blameless here. Upon arriving at the school he is immediately made to feel like an outcast by the other kids due to his modest working class background. Even his roommate Yujin does nothing to make him feel welcome, and the tension is fuelled when the two argue over the official status of Pluto in solar system during class.
Thanks to the computer hacking skills of female classmate Jung Sujin (Kim Kkobbi), June learns that the special class have access to the exam questions which they share via secret notebooks. June wants in but first he has to pass a number of tests, which become more outrageous and dangerous as they progress.
Shin Su-won has rather boldly cast an acerbic eye over the Korean education system and the social snobbery to explore the heavy demands and expectations of the young by both family and society. While most parents would be happy for their kids to do well and get good results it is the prestige of the university the child attends that is more important, a myopic and superficial ideal that has been ingrained in the students of this story. A former teacher herself, Shin has the insider knowledge on the schooling system so we can only presume that she was relating her own experiences and observations with us through this film.
The story is told in flashback intertwined with the present day footage, revealing the key points piecemeal which makes for an engaging and tense narrative, rife with some nice misdirection on points that seem too obvious. We learn that June was an early victim of the group’s pranks while trying to fit in, finding a lone ally in Sujin who has her own reason for disliking the elite club. They become less a team raging against the elite machine rather one outcast trying to get through to the other the sheer nastiness of what they are becoming.
Perhaps the one noticeable weakness of the Pluto is how many familiar conventions have been adhered to in both the story and the characterisations. For instance, the elite kids are made up of the pretty but bitchy Mi-ra (Sun Joo-A), the bespectacled but arrogant Myungho (Kim Kwon) and the chubby and slightly nerdy Bo-ram (Nam Tae-Boo). Their parents are depicted in the most gregarious of stereotypes, draped in the finest fashions, expensive jewellery and drinking the dearest champagne while looking down on June’s poor mother (Kil Hae-Yeon), mocking her meagre insurance salesperson job.
But this is a minor cavil which is more than compensated by the taut and bleak mystery drama that unfolds before us. Shin’s script cleverly uses the social commentary as a fuel for the events of her story rather than be the centre of it, unravelling a multi-layered tale of murder and revenge in the process. The main focus is June’s slow moral and personal decline in his pursuit of becoming among the elite, but the story is full of upsetting and grim revelations that play a key part in the films decisively hopeless and tragic denouement.
If you are wondering where Pluto the planet fits into it, the reason for its exclusion from the solar system is that it is too small therefore not eligible to be lumped in with the other planets. June, somewhat shorter then the others, is therefore the Pluto of the smart kids, a clever metaphor some may have missed. Less subtle is the quote that opens the film telling us that a record high of students in Korea either quit their studies or commit suicide such is the pressure they are under, something Shin weaves into the story.
This may be a low budget affair but Shin has managed to attract some impressive talent to make up the cast. David Lee has form playing the tearaway teen, as he was the murderous grandson in Poetry. He is able to be both sympathetic and unpleasant making June a very rounded and interesting main character. The elite kids are suitably arrogant and irritatingly smug, while Sung Joon, perhaps a bit too mature for the role of Yujin, is given a bit more depth as the film rolls on.
As ever, the scene stealer is the talented Kim KKobbi, who many may recognise from the bleak and ultra violet Breathless. Despite pushing 30, KKobbi is able to succeed in portraying a 19 year-old both physically and emotionally, such is her incisive understanding of nuances and minutiae.
Pluto isn’t afraid to paint Korean school life as an unpleasant experience; it’s not the first film to do this and it won’t be the last. It deserves plaudits for being so boldly provocative as well as a tightly crafted and wholly captivating viewing experience. Plus we also have a new voice in Korean cinema to look up to, and a female one at that, in Shin Su-won, whose promise is plain to see in this film.
To add a little perspective, Pluto could neatly sit in between another Korean school yarn Bleak Night and the Japanese psychodrama Confessions as an unofficial dark Asian High School trilogy – it’s that visceral and that evocative.
Interview with director Shin Su-won
Interview with actress Kim Kkobbi
Third Window Trailers
Rating – ****
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