Last year’s Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) brought us three very different films that shone a light on the pressure (shading towards the horror, in some cases) of high school in South Korea: the harrowing true story Silenced, the wistful, nuanced drama Bleak Night and the snarling animated film The King of Pigs.
This year they have programmed Pluto, another feature film that takes the pressure-cooker environment of the final years of high school as its subject and delivers an absorbing, unpredictable story with a serious message.
The film begins with a young man, Yoo-jin Taylor (played by model-turned-actor Sung June), found dead in the hills behind one of Korea’s elite high schools. Interviews with his classmates and others turn the police’s attention to June (Lee Da-wit, who played the young private in The Front Line), who had his differences with Yoo-jin, but there’s not enough evidence (or even a conclusive cause of death) to hold him for the crime. Then the filmmakers turn the clock back…
June is the new kid at school, and it’s evident that this particular high school is Serious Business: everyone’s focus is on academic performance and university entrance scores. Class rankings are displayed publicly in the entrance hall after tests, students study until lights out in the dormitories, and some indulge in hopeful superstition — maybe, just maybe, collecting a hundred ‘S’ badges off the backs of Hyundai Sonatas will prompt the fates to get you into Seoul University (it starts with an ‘S’, you see).
At the top of the pecking order is a special class comprising the top ten students, who are given access to more intensive preparation, language tutors, even an inside track for entrance at some of the top universities. These students are seated by current ranking, and if someone drops below position ten, they’re booted out… and this sort of pressure compels those with affluent parents to retain stupendously expensive tutors just to keep them there.
Yoo-jin, our victim at the beginning of the film, is the American-born superstar student, number one in the special class. He’s also June’s roommate, though the two don’t see eye to eye. More friendly with June is Soo-jin (Kim Kko-bbi, who voiced the younger Jong-suk in The King of Pigs), a misfit student who’s more interested in computers than exam scores and is fascinated by a secret club that seems to be operated by Yoo-jin and the other one-percenters.
After its initial setup, Pluto transitions beautifully from fish-out-of-water drama (as June tries to fit in to his new school and learns to compete with the others) into a detective story: how do the students in the special class maintain their close-to-perfect scores, and what’s this secret club all about? June’s status as an outsider makes him easy to identify with, all the better for delivering us the series of revelations that lead to the film’s final conclusion. It’s a little reminiscent of Bleak Night, actually, but where that film’s focus was solely on the characters and their relationships, Pluto is more action-driven, with a larger point to make about the pressure of the Korean high school system.
The performances from the mostly indie-film cast are good, particularly from Lee Da-wit and Sung June in the lead roles. What stands out for me about Pluto is the strength of the writing and direction from Shin Su-won: the film succeeds as an interesting drama, as a dark, art-house mystery, and as an indictment of the systemic pressure put on students in these Korean high schools. As was revealed in the Q&A after the KOFFIA screening, director Shin spent a decade as a teacher before working in film, and it’s obvious that a great many moments in Pluto come from that experience.
I liked the way the film was shot, too — sometimes this sort of drama can seem like it’s an endless succession of dialogue-driven scenes shot in tight close-up. Here, though, Shin and her cinematographer Yun Ji-un display a bit more visual style: they have favoured longer takes and a variety of angles of view, often picking unusual compositions, perhaps motivated by the use of settings like June’s cramped dorm room. The looming, institutional hulk of the school contributes a great deal of atmosphere too.
Kieran Tully, the Artistic Director for KOFFIA, named this film as his pick of the festival this year, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a powerful piece of work. Even though it might belabour its point a little towards the end, it’s just too well-made not to like, particularly as it was made without major studio funding and resources.