Pluto (Myungwangsung): Busan Review

Pluto Film Still - H 2012
The merciless competition at an elite high school makes for a chilly tale that gets over-extended at the end.

Writer-director Shin Suwon offers an insider’s view of an elite Korean prep school featuring bright young actors David Lee, Sung June and Kim Kkhob-bi.

The world has come a long way fromIf, Lindsay Anderson’s classic 1968 utopian fantasy about a student insurrection against authority in an English public school. Today top students prefer to kill each other to rise a few notches in the school rankings, according to Shin Suwon’s accomplished Pluto, which pushes the trend to its logical conclusion. Lensed with an elegant frostiness that conveys the inhuman atmosphere of an elite Korean prep school, its portrait of underage cutthroat competition among tomorrow’s ruling class remains gripping and original, until the story is uselessly spun out in the final reels, targeting it as a promising B+ festival item.

When science student June (David Lee) gets transferred to a top high school, he doesn’t realize he’s taken the place of a girl who just killed herself. The circumstances of her death are later revealed in multiple interwoven flashbacks and they aren’t pretty. Neither is the clique of snobbish rich kids lead by June’s aloof roommate Yunjin (an intense Sung June), who have access to special classes, tutors and crib sheets that keep their ranking high.

Since the story opens with Yunjin being bludgeoned to death by masked figures, it’s clear these kids are playing for high stakes, not only in their perverted minds but those of their teachers who fully collaborate in making sure the rich kids get ahead and the others fall behind. As June’s smart nerd friend Sujin (Kim Kkob-bi, notable even in this small role) tells him, even if an outsider like him manages to get a berth at Seoul University, he’ll eventually be pulled down. Yet still, he tries to become one of the elite. 

Brooding young actor David Lee creates a sickening feeling of June falling helplessly into a deadly psycho-trap. His uniform can’t disguise his cheap haircut and lack of self-confidence, though alert students like Sujin sense his ability to think outside the box. Suppressing his decent instincts, he performs the hurtful “missions” that are his initiation into the band.

With all the suicides, murders and car bombings going on, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe the police would keep a respectful distance from the school. Only when things get completely out of hand in the last act does a detective (Cho Sung-ha, who played the father of a deceased college student in Bleak Night) finally step in, to null effect.

Writer-director Shin Suwon, whose short Circle Linewas noted in Cannes’ Critics Week this year, has a confident control over tone up until the final scenes, which are inexplicably stretched out beyond the breaking point. The theme of astronomy, June’s pet subject, affords some poetic musings on the universe and cues composer Ryu Jae-ah’s highly inventive music-of-the-spheres score.  Cinematographer Yun Ji-un’s finely calibrated lighting manages to be elegant and casually expressive at the same time.

Venue: Busan Film Festival (Korean Cinema Today)
Production companies: SH Film, June Film
Cast: Lee David, Sung June, Kim Kkot-bi, Cho Sung-ha, Kim Kwan, Sun Ju-ah, Park Jung-jae
Director: Shin Suwon
Screenwriter: Shin Suwon
Producer: Francis Lim
Executive producers: Shin Shang-han, Francis Lim
Director of photography: Yun Ji-un
Production designer: Sakong Hee
Costumes: Kim Da-jeong
Editor: Lee Do-hyun
Music: Ryu Jae-ah
No rating, 120 minutes