Written and directed by Shin Su-won
South Korea, 2012
Set in an elite boarding school, Korean director Shin Su-won’s debut feature is an impressive study of the violent consequences of social stratification. Students are ranked according to their results and placed under immense pressure to reach the top; only those with the very best grades are able to compete for a place at the prestigious Seoul National University. When the top student, Yujin (Sung June), is found murdered near the school, his roommate, June (David Lee), is the prime suspect, but police do not have enough evidence to convict him. After his release, he takes four of Yujin’s circle hostage in a secret area of the school, which formerly served as torture chambers for political prisoners during South Korea’s military dictatorship.
The school’s social structure is a kind of anarcho-totalitarianism, in which nominal authority figures are completely powerless and those who run the system do so without any explicit control. It gives the illusion of being a meritocracy – anyone who achieves highly can theoretically reap the benefits – but lasting success is only ever gained through force and privilege. The setting is used perfectly to compliment this idea, as open plan classrooms and modern teaching methods are continually undermined by the prison-like buildings and square courtyard, designed with surveillance and intimidation in mind. Throughout the film, Su-won deftly forges an intelligent, far-reaching social commentary, without it ever impinging on our enjoyment of the plot.
The build-up to the murder is explained in parallel with the hostage situation, and both storylines converge brilliantly as Pluto reaches its conclusion. It quickly becomes apparent that whoever committed the crime was motivated by ‘Rabbit Hunting’, a conspiracy among the top 10 students, discovered by June, along with the easy-going hacker, Su-jin (Kim Kkob-bi). As well as using their special classes to exchange answers for upcoming exams, several elites, led by Yujin, have been using brutal, underhand methods to eliminate any legitimate competition. It is these acts, along with Yujin’s complex characterisation, that provide the film’s dramatic impetus. To film acts of violence, Su-won frequently shifts to handheld cameras, imbuing it with fly-on-the-wall realism to maximise the impact.
Pluto‘s title comes from an argument put forward by June, disputing the official reason the planet is no longer accorded a place in the Solar System. He argues it has nothing to do with its scientific classification, but is because we refuse to accept that the Solar System is not the centre of the universe. June is posited as the consummate rebel; like Galileo, he argues using cosmology and rejects an egoistic society on principle. His position resembles that of an unfortunate dissident from South Korea’s authoritarian past, creating bold, radical parallels between then and now. In the country’s ruthlessly competitive education system, the only choice is whether to become a hunter or a rabbit.
Aside from a few obscure lines about singing planets and unnecessary shots of outer space, there are few flaws to pick out. Pluto is consistently entertaining, captivatingly unhinged and expertly paced, building towards an undeniably smart conclusion. The elite society is at the same time darkly comic and deadly serious, but it is always made clear that violence and revolt are inevitable as long as it remains in place. Su-won gets fantastic performances from a fairly inexperienced cast and shows real skill in tying together the film’s many facets. Pluto is a remarkable debut, achieving the rare feat of being both a thrilling piece of cinema and an intellectual treat.