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(Screened at the 2013 London Korean Film Festival.)
“Pluto” is a grim Korean indie dealing with elitism, bullying and murder amongst high school students, directed by Shin Su Won (“Passerby #3”). Revolving around a ruthless clique of rich, fiercely competitive classmates who manipulate the school for their own benefit, the film stars David Lee (“Poetry”) as a new student desperate to join their circle, who gets slowly but surely pushed over the edge for his trouble. The film went down very well with critics, playing to acclaim at a variety of festivals including Busan, Berlin and Edinburgh, and has been picked up for release in the UK by Third Window.
The film opens with David Lee as June, a student at a top boarding school being arrested for the murder of classmate Yoon Jin (Sung Joon, “Gu Family Book”), whose body is found in a nearby forest. Released by the police after questioning, June immediately returns to the school, and takes several other students prisoner in a hidden basement. The hostages are members of an elite cabal of rich kids, who effectively control the school, lording it over the other pupils and doing whatever it takes to maintain their near perfect exam scores, and who were led by Yoon Jin until his death. June’s story gradually unfolds in flashback, showing how he worked his way into the group, undergoing a series of trials and tasks, becoming a cruel and violent monster himself in the process.
Given the subject matter, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that “Pluto” really is a dark and depressing film, though thankfully it’s bleak in a creative and intellectual manner rather than just heaping on the unpleasantness. Recalling in parts Nakashima Tetsuya’s “Confessions” and Yeon Sang Ho’s animation “The King of Pigs”, the film nevertheless has its own character, offering a slightly different take on the usual bullying and high school homicide themes. As much a conspiracy thriller as it is a murder mystery, the film has some very interesting touches, making entertaining use of its secret societies, hazing rituals and academic politics. Shin Su Won uses this to paint a very damning picture of Korean society, the education system being portrayed as wholly corrupt and controlled by the rich, who enjoy countless advantages and the freedom to abuse their less fortunate peers. The script is tight and well-written, and the flashback structure works well, allowing Shin to successfully build the tension, leading to a fittingly downbeat (if perhaps predictable) finale.
While it does feel a little familiar, the film is gripping and effectively paced throughout, with more than enough twists and ill scheming to keep the viewer involved, boosted by some very solid performances from the impressive young cast. The film’s only real possible fault is that Shin might have done too good a job in underlining the wickedness of his characters and the brutal hopelessness of their situation, and though the film is never less than engaging, it’s a cold, almost emotionless affair at times.
June’s journey to self-destruction is undoubtedly fascinating and believable, though as a sympathetic protagonist he’s a bit of a hard sell, even at the start being not much better than the villains of the piece. Yoon Jin is a more interesting, though equally unlikeable young man, becoming increasingly detached and indifferent to the suffering his gang is causing. Coupled with the inevitability that things are never going to end well, this makes for a viewing experience that might well be a little too heavy going for those looking for easy answers or cheerful platitudes, Shin never pretending to offer anything other than a cruel tale of cruel people doing cruel things. Though there’s not much violence or anything graphic on show, the film is frequently very shocking, and features a good few gut punches, both emotional and visceral, which again may push it a little too far into the abyss for some.
For those who enjoy such desolation and spite, however, “Pluto” is a highly accomplished and thought-provoking film, and while unlikely to leave a smile on anyone’s face, it’ll certainly leave its mark. Though its subject matter might not sound like anything new, it’s one of the best and most philosophically minded entries in the genre of late, not to mention one of the most hard-hitting Korean indies of the year.
Su-won Shin (director) / Su-won Shin (screenplay)
CAST: David Lee … Kim June
June Sung … Yujin Taylor
Sung-ha Cho … Senior Detective
Kkobbi Kim … Jung Su-jin
Kwon Kim … Han Myung-ho
Kyung-soo Yu … Park Jung-jae