High school horrors created by clandestine school societies address social issues in Su-won Shin’s frightening view of pre-university life, where students seek to be part of the elite and the elite are all about ensuring that others don’t join their exclusive club.
Fascinating facts about the universe: stars and planets sing when they rotate. The problem is that we can’t hear them, ‘unless we are in a black-hole. Dying.’ Planetary choral behaviour and, indeed, the status of Pluto’s place in the solar system are issues that the pupils in Se Young High School need to address, as well as engaging in the wider, sometimes deeply disturbing, extracurricular requirements that this elite school demands. Although Se Young High School commands the highest quality pupils, a select few seek places at the prestigious Seoul National University and only those who study in the ‘Special Class’, a group of the top ten A+ students, will obtain the additional tuition that will help them secure a prestigious place. They also have additional school privileges such as not having to lights out at 11pm, regardless of the revision and homework requirements demanded of all pupils.
Kim June (Da-wit Lee) has recently transferred to Se Young High School and despite the fact that he comes from a less wealthy, single parent family, he hopes that his academic abilities, not to mention his infatuation with astronomy, will help him graduate and get into an excellent university. But the school – rumoured amongst some of the students that it was built on a former K-CIA building, with added torture chambers – has recently had to deal with shocking events. A highly regarded girl from the Special Class committed suicide during the previous school year and this year a boy from the same group of apt pupils was found brutally murdered, with the police suspecting that June was involved – after all, images of the boy’s demise were found on his phone’s camera. We flash back to June joining the school and learn that the first year exams revealed disappointing results for him. With potentially harsh ways of improving his grades – ‘Number 47? To be Number 1 I just need to kill 46 people,’ perhaps he can find help from the elite students who possess a series of special notebooks which indicate potential questions for the forthcoming exams. June attempts to become a member of the group – to join the rabbit hunt – by participating in a number of tasks determined by the group. But at what cost to him or his fellow classmates? Morality seems to be the least of the requirements in their sadistic plans…
Pluto is a compelling and disturbing work that addresses a number of issues connected with high school examinations, peer pressure, class and social status. The integration between the characters is well constructed, enhanced by excellent performances, as the pupils slowly learn who are friends and who are foe, and discover why they are trying to succeed in a social and academic environment which is countered by their need for companionship, romance or scholarly supremacy.
Based around the central premise of the murder of the star pupil, Pluto’s structure follows two time frames – the current investigation into the death and flashbacks to events building up to it – so that the revelations of Se Young High School’s characters builds up slowly to reveal the students’ characteristics in all their potential ghastliness. This slow-burn approach is enhanced by the the film’s style which is, at times, notably compositional (lovely downward shots, telescopic pans and brief snappy close-ups), while at other times makes use of deliberately realistic tracking or hand-held camerawork; the aim is to depict events in a way that mixes the fantastical elements of the plotting whilst enhancing the realism that centres around the students’ issues and the way that the pressures of modern life dictate their perception of success or failure.
Writer/director Su-won Shin has made a feature that addresses contemporary concerns in schools but, as a drama, one which reveals its secrets slowly, a film that is carefully constructed to ensure that it is both intriguing and disturbing.