Pluto, an intense, often brutal South Korean film, starts with the murder of top high school student Yujin (Jun Sung). Fellow student June (Da-wit Lee) is hauled in for questioning and the tale is told via flashbacks, depicting a group of elite students and what they do to stay on top to ensure a university place. It’s a story about bullying, blackmail, hierarchy and the underbelly of human nature, but Su-won Shin – writer/director and former school teacher – does not judge her characters. She keeps a certain impartial distance as the story unfolds, yet there’s still some compassion here for the central characters, irrespective of how deeply flawed they are.
The film treads a surprisingly similar path to The King Of Pigs – a South Korean animated film from last year’s festival that saw two former classmates, now adults, reflect upon the hell that was high school Pluto is also a fairly close relative of the Australian drama Wasted On The Young. Yet both Wasted On The Young and The King Of Pigs feel superior to this entirely bleak, although well made, offering. Those films both had a surreal edge, and Wasted had key characters that were easy to care about.
Pluto is harsher, darker and all together more disturbing. It has exactly one young character who elicits sympathy – a female student and computer wizard who hacks into the private network of the elite students. Main characters Yujin and June are complex, but they’re not people you want to spend screen time with, despite the superb performances. The camera work is very fine, with some sections filmed directly from above, plus brief excursions to the stars (the title itself refers to the dwarf planet and its demotion within the solar system).
Pluto is billed as a thriller but there are more shocks than real thrills – small shocks and big shocks… One powerful scene shows June blindfolded for a classroom exercise as he is led around by the girl of his dreams. With the blindfold still on, he tells her how he feels about her. She removes the blindfold. He finds himself standing on a ledge, his classmates all standing behind him, snickering. The big shocks consist of unspeakable animal cruelty and a disturbing finale – if Hollywood had been handling this script, those final moments may have seemed farcical, ridiculous. But here they are plausible and unsettling.
I came into this film on a high after seeing actor/director Sarah Polley’s life-affirming documentary Stories We Tell. I came out of Pluto feeling anxious, concerned about a long-standing worry that was suddenly as big as the Sun… Pluto isn’t a film to ‘enjoy’ (unless perhaps you’re a psychopath), but it is involving and there’s no doubting its cinematic power.