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South Korea 2012


Shin Su-won

Lee David
Seong Joon
Seon Joo-ah
Kim Kwon
Nam Tae-boo
Ryoo Kyeong-soo
Kim Kkobbi
Jo Seong-ha
Kil Hae-yeon

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Story: High school student Yoo-jin (Seong Joon) is found dead in a forest. The police investigate the case under Park's (Jo Seong-ha) supervision and soon they have a suspect. Apparently Kim Joon (Lee David) has been envious of Yoo-jin's grades, but it turns out that he has an alibi for the time of murder. After questioning him the police have to let him go. Soon after Joon takes three students hostage in the secret basement of the school, which was used as a torture chamber by the Korean secret service back in the day. The police are sent a picture that shows the imprisoned students, but they don't know of the secret basement and are in the dark about Joon's motives.
When Joon transfered to the school it soon became apparent that Yoo-jin was part of a secret group along with the three students. One of the group members' privileges was to be in the know about test answers, thanks to a secret notebook. Joon wants his grades to be better and thus become a part of the group no matter what. Beside an initiation ritual Joon also has to commit other cruel things in order to be allowed taking a glance at the notebook...

Review: Bullying at school is a cross-cultural phenomenon. There have already been a handful of movies out of Korea centering around this subject. "Pluto" comes across as an indie flick that wants to deal with the matter in a serious way, yet does so without wanting to look particularly intelligent and profound thanks to an art house wrapping. "Pluto" is simply honest and remains true to its tone until the very end, which is also what makes this drama work out better than you would expect at first. That is because the movie certainly struggles with an extreme form of emotional detachment. None of the characters seems to be written for the audience to sympathize with. Luckily, there is still an anchor in the shape of Joon that keeps the film from getting lost somewhere at sea.

Pluto - Film Screenshot 11

Korea's educational system enforces an extreme form of competitive thinking which drives students close to their psychological limits. It isn't a conincidence that the suicide rate among students is especially high in Korea. The final year at school and most importantly the final exam decides what university you are allowed to go to. And the university on the other hand decides how successful you are about to be in life. In other words, the final year at school stands as an even more important crossroads than what we are familiar with from western countries. Since there is already a ranking system implemented in school, everyone is eager to fight his/her way as high up the ladder as possible. And there actually shouldn't be any need to point out that the game isn't played within a set of rules and that's where "Pluto" begins its story. This drama is bleak, shocking and thought-provoking.

Pluto - Film Screenshot 12

In the beginning it is a complete riddle who the murderer is. Joon may have an alibi, but he still behaves odd. The mystery factor remains a part of the movie all the way through and it bestows a special mood on the drama. However, also remaining a mystery until the very end are the characters. They are deliberately drawn in a rather blurry fashion, but particularly towards the end a clearer picture of them would have been desireable. It's not as if "Pluto" ultimately leaves some questions unanswered, but the drama could have been more profound. Lee David ("Poetry", "The Front Line") manages to carry his character in such a way that we in fact learn to understand why he acts the way he does, although we never really grow fond of him.

One reason for that is the emotional detachment in the movie. Loneliness and the vastness of infinite space are feelings growing inside you with every minute. Space isn't a recurring theme by chance. Particularly Joon and Pluto are connected by the fact they they are outsiders. Pluto isn't counted among our solar system's planets anymore and thus has been kicked out of the team of major players. Just like Joon hasn't any real chance at his new school anymore. The rich parents of the other students are almost hysterical when it comes to their children's education and that's because their kids are like prestigious objects to show around. But Joon comes from a poor family and suddenly has to face Korean society in which there are no equal opportunities and which instead is only about who you know and what group you are part of. A problem in Korea which "Pluto" deals with in a very multilayered and worthwhile fashion.

Pluto - Film Screenshot 13

"Pluto" is atmospherically dense, but also odd and cold. The pacing is slow all throughout, but there is always enough going on to prevent boredome from creeping in. The school becomes a microcosm in which Korean society is mirrored and pilloried. The editing deserves some special words of praise, because since the mystery drama is told on two time levels confusion easily could have been the result, but that's never the case. "Memento Mori" and "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do" have centered around bullying at school in their very own manner and "Pluto" finds its own way, too, which the drama benefits from. A lot of scenes aren't for the faint-hearted. Although there is never excessive depiction of violence to be seen the gruesomeness of the students is always present. "Pluto" is bleak and not a pleasant drama at all, it is more of a knife that you start to feel cutting through your flesh rather late. But especially because of that this drama deserves a thumbs-up.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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