Tiger parents might rethink their child-rearing techniques after watching “Pluto,” a bloodcurdling juvenile crime-thriller in which students are happy to cheat, rape and kill for grades. Wringing nerve-shredding suspense from a flawed but brilliantly composed script, helmer-scribe Shin Su-won raises the sadism bar among South Korean films on school bullying, decrying the country’s harsh, class-biased education system with images of exam hell that will resonate with young auds across Asia. Having caused a stir at its Busan Film Festival preem, “Pluto” should travel widely in the festival orbit while scoring top marks in genre ancillary.
The title refers to a science class debate at the elite Se Young High School, during which Pluto, until recently believed to be the farthest planet in the solar system, is branded an outcast and identified with the film’s central figure, June (David Lee). Astronomy nerd and transfer student June is detained by police as chief suspect in the murder of American-raised top student Yu-jin Taylor (Sung June). When questioned by the police, Yu-jin’s best friends (played by Kim Kwon, Sun Ju-ah, Yu Kyung-soo and Nam Tae-boo) concur that June didn’t get along with the victim. When June is released on insufficient evidence, he returns to school armed with nitroglycerine bombs to confront the classmates who bad-mouthed him.
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The pic’s examples of hazing and fraternity initiation rites may have equivalents in schools everywhere, but its macabre depiction of the national obsession with getting into prestigious universities will probably seem novel in the West. Yu-jin and his gang form a secret society to swap insiders’ tips on upcoming exam questions, whereas extra coaching and longer study hours are treated as “privileges” that set them apart as the country’s top 1%. At one point, a hostage drama unfolds in the school dungeon, once a Korean CIA torture chamber, making it a microcosm of the country’s education system.
The film maps out a disheartening path for June, who, as outsider to and observer of this punishing curriculum, eventually becomes co-opted by its values. In stark contrast, his hacker friend Su-jin (Kim Khob-bi) refuses to play by the clique’s rules, and keeps hounding them about the unsolved suicide of her roommate Eun-joo (Kim Mi-jeong).
“Pluto” forms a provocative triumvirate with two other high-profile Korean films on cruel stories of youth, “Bleak Night” (2010) and “The King of Pigs” (2011). In those films, classroom rivalries played out in an exclusively male domain; the involvement of distaff characters here adds a sexual component to the student dynamics. “Pluto” also demonstrates the traumatic effects of putdowns and other forms of psychological abuse; a scene in which the girl June fancies coquettishly leads the blindfolded June to the rooftop ledge is particularly chilling.
Helmer Shin, who majored in scriptwriting, fills her byzantine plot with a wealth of riveting detail, creating a mosaic effect that delivers continual thrills. Although blurry on characterization and psychological depth, and teeming with credibility issues, the script is rich in social satire, especially in its caricature of monstrous parents, and is marked by a tone of cool detachment that keeps the story from tipping over into ranting hysteria. Even the fantastically overblown payback scene is redeemed by a touch of gallows humor.
Tech credits are sleek for a modestly budgeted production. Yun Ji-un’s wintry lensing conjures up a Stygian ambience, while Ryu Jae-ah’s modernist score echoes the planetary theme. Most impressive is Lee Do-hyun’s editing, which tightly pulls together the story’s excessive flashbacks, and attunes the audience to unpredictable situations.