"When planets move, they sing a song but we can't hear it unless we are in a black hole... dying."
When the dead body of top high school student Yu-jin is discovered slumped against a tree near Se Young High School, police are called in and begin their investigation by focusing on his onetime roommate, astronomy enthusiast June, who was the last person to call Yu-jin's cell phone prior to his death. Speaking to other members of the Special Class of high-achieving pupils, detectives are repeatedly told that June had few friends and was deeply jealous of Yu-jin but being unable to uncover any tactile proof of his guilt they are soon forced to set him free.
However, no sooner is June released from custody than he heads directly to the secret meeting place of the leading members of the Special Class - an ex-Intelligence Agency torture chamber hidden in the basement of their school - determined to make them pay for the many vicious injustices for which he holds them solely responsible. All he needs to wait and prepare for is the following day's solar eclipse...
The importance placed on the school system in Korea; the often intense pressure placed on students by parents, teachers and the like to achieve at any and all cost; and the associated peer rivalry/bullying almost inherent to such enforced competitiveness will be fairly common knowledge to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Korean society, and as is the case with any overarching societal focus the subject has formed the basis for numerous Korean film narratives over the years; ranging from horror stories such as 'Death Bell'; through dramas and thrillers including 'Once Upon a Time in High School' and 'Bleak Night'; to animations like 'King of Pigs', to name but a few.
'Pluto' not only weaves its dark and twisted tale around the 'who' and 'how' of its story by means of the police investigation into Yu-jin's death but also, more importantly, uses June's perspective and his interactions with others (both in the present and flashback) to underline the 'why' for all concerned; dissecting several major narrative themes along the way in its journey to ask where the limits lay within pressured efforts to get and stay on top:
'Pluto' begins with visuals detailing Yu-jin's murder juxtaposed with several individuals in the midst of a rabbit hunt in a wooded area (a narrative idea subsequently turning deeply vicious as the story unfolds; the rabbit element simply, and brutally, replaced with human rape and torture) and instantly one of the overarching themes is clearly referenced - that of hunter and hunted - and though at this early stage its depiction is purely physical, its psychological connotations and changing balance for the main characters loom large through ensuing stages.
As is almost always the case in Korean cinematic tales set in high school, 'Pluto' splits its main characters into archetypal opposing camps - in this particular instance the seemingly (initially, at least) all-powerful high achieving students in the elite Special Class versus the more vulnerable, ordinary pupils far lower in the school hierarchy - and thus the aforementioned 'hunter/hunted' scenario appears straightforwardly set within an all-encompassing 'power corrupts' statement; almost requisite in tales detailing hierarchy, privilege, elitism and/or class in stories from virtually any country you could care to mention. Of course, before long as June sets out to exact revenge on those he holds responsible for the wrongs he has witnessed, been subjected to and even been involved in, the expected and likely predicted shift from hunted in the past to hunter in the present begins to take shape but here especially simplicity of theme belies the sheer depth with which it is deftly realised and slowly yet purposefully as the full history of events unfolds in flashback we are gradually brought face-to-face with the film's insightful narrative core.
For, what 'Pluto' repeatedly and increasingly states is that fear is the ultimate leveller; an emotion not only affecting each and every single character - be it June's fear of not being accepted by the elite group; the fear felt by the top ten students that someone will beat their SAT score and take their place in the Special Class; the fear instilled by the elite into their rabbit hunt victims; etc etc - but also, in fact, controlling their very choices and actions regardless of where in the pecking order they stand and irrespective of how green the grass on the other side may seem from a distance.
With its dark and twisted high school centred tale detailing the circumstances surrounding a pupil's death; its characters' outer friendships barely concealing jealously, animosity and even hatred; and its main story told in flashback, 'Pluto' can almost be guaranteed to appear as the offspring of the aforementioned 'Bleak Night' (2010) and this feeling is further underlined by the fact that actor Jo Seong-ha stars in both films (as Police chief Park in 'Pluto' and the father of student Gi-tae in 'Bleak Night'); each unconnected character investigating their respective mystery.
Considering the fact that 'Bleak Night' is, to my mind, an utterly sublime example of this type of Korean drama/thriller, it is an insanely difficult act to follow but 'Pluto' not only manages to successfully achieve all of its objectives but also does so with insightful aplomb in spite of being a low budget production.
As well as the well written and realised narrative infused throughout with social commentary, a large part of the reason 'Pluto' succeeds so well is as a result of the decision to make the police investigation a secondary narrative thread and instead focus the majority of the ongoing story from June's perspective and by association those around him, thereby greatly increasing the emotional resonance present: So tantalisingly close to the elite 'inner circle' but with it always achingly just out of reach, the question ultimately becomes what June will be prepared to do when he finally conquers the fear that has controlled him for so long.
Lee David, Seong Joon, Kim Kkobbi, Seon Joo-ah, Jo Seong-ha
While several of Pluto's storyline elements, its setting and the appearance of actor Jo Seong-ha will likely combine to bring Yoon Sung-hyun's Bleak Night (2010) to viewers' minds, Shin Su-won's low budget thriller nonetheless manages to stand on its own as a dissection of fear within a dark and twisted tale laced with social commentary; ultimately feeling far more a companion piece than a derivation.
Third Window Films will release 'Pluto' on DVD in the UK in 2014. This review will be updated with the full UK DVD details as soon as they are available.