As we’ve seen lately, there are certainly no shortage of films looking at the complicated and often harsh world of high school in Korea. Pluto takes a slightly sideways look at the darker side of academic excellence, when the praise and prestige of being one of the top students becomes almost like a drug and makes otherwise bright young people do things even a heroin addict in serious need of a fix might at least feel bad about afterwards with an all encompassing sense of entitlement that gives them a lifetime free pass for even the worst transgression.
June is a bright young boy from a regular high school who’s just transferred into an elite boarding school educating the country’s next great hopes. He may have been a top student at his old school, but here he’s merely average as the school hotshots are pretty quick to point out. Here, the top ten students are treated like princelings - a special computerised teaching room, no curfew, better rooms, better resources and they can more or less do what they like so long as they keep their grades up. Occasionally someone manages to bump one of the top ten from the list but they quickly get kicked out again. The top ten operate like some kind of swatters mafia - they all stick rigidly together, swapping hot tips for the upcoming exams that they refuse to share with the others and engaging in a series of increasingly cruel “pranks” they term rabbit hunts. The film opens with the police finding the body of the previously number one student Yu-jin in a wood, with June’s phone lying next him having been used to film the entire grisly affair. June is arrested for the murder but is released after his alibi checks out. Sick of all the struggle and unfairness, June puts his particular talents to use to try and teach the world a lesson about the sort of people this system is producing.
The picture Pluto paints of the Korean schools system is a frankly frightening one in which academic success is virtually bought and paid for or guaranteed by class credentials. Yes, the top students obviously must have ability - some of their activities may come close to cheating but interestingly nobody seems to want to try actual deception to get ahead - but that natural ability has clearly been bolstered by their parents' wealth. Attending an elite school and spending more than some people earn on private tutors geared towards knowing how to get into the best universities undoubtedly gives them advantages which are out of reach for others, no matter how smart they may be. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a capitalist society - they didn’t ask to be born to rich parents and who would turn that sort of help down if offered it? However, though they may possess the virtues of discipline, hard work and a desire to succeed, what they lack is any sort of empathy or even common human decency. Engaging in a series of manipulative hazing exercises, the elite group will stop at nothing to protect their status specialising in thuggery, blackmail, rape and even murder. The sort of people this system is advancing are not the sort of people you want running your schools and hospitals; they are morally bankrupt and only care about their own standing in the eyes of others.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this elite boarding school is housed inside a former compound of the Korean secret police, including a subterranean layer of prison-like tunnels once used as a torture chamber. Aside from the obvious school as torture analogies, much of the film seems to be about what people choose to ‘unsee’. The headmaster of the high school is aware of the 'untoward' behaviour of some of his pupils but refuses to do anything in case it upsets their well-connected parents, damages the reputation of his school or has an adverse effect on those all important test results. The 'Pluto' of the title is referenced in June’s university application essay on the demotion of Pluto from the accepted list of planets. He argues that this is unfair and a fallacy as it's illogical to measure anything by its proximity to the sun which is, after all, just another star which will eventually die like all the others. Just because it’s a little different looking, you shouldn’t necessarily categorise it as being in some way ‘inferior’ based on a set of fairly flimsy criteria. June, like Pluto, hovers in uncertain orbit on the periphery - always wanting in but perpetually locked out. Naturally gifted but from an ‘ordinary’ background where his single mother sells insurance for okay money, June can’t hope to compete with these elite kids even if his capabilities may be greater. A lot of decisions have already been made as to what people choose to see and have chosen to regard as an ideal, even if the reality is painfully obvious.
Though oddly funny in places for such a hard hitting film, Pluto is a difficult watch at times and paints a depressing picture - firstly of the high pressured nature of the Korean educational system and then just of human nature in general. The elite group are universally awful people who run the gamut from arrogant, entitled prigs to snivelling cowards which makes it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy and you start to long for bad things to happen to them, which undermines the film’s premise somewhat - perhaps the problem is just that they were awful people who were enabled by a system rather than people who started out good and were corrupted by it. Stylishly shot and supported by well grounded performances from its young cast Pluto is a welcome addition to this perhaps overcrowded genre which brings more than a few new thought-provoking ideas to the table.
Pluto is released in UK cinemas from 6th June before receiving a home video release from Third Windows Films later in the year.