Shin Su-won’s “Pluto” (명왕성) – 2013 HKIFF Review

For a chilling view of bullying in pre-university education today, one should look no further than several recent Asian films that have thoroughly dissected the topic.  In 2010, a teacher sought revenge against her students in Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Confessions.”  In 2011, Yeun Sang-ho’s animated drama “The King of Pigs” magnified the divide between upper- and lower-class students.  Now, South Korean director Shin Su-won offers her take in “Pluto” (명왕성), a masterpiece that focuses on the cream of the crop – versus the rest of the lot – at an elite boarding school.

The film begins with “good luck” rallies for those taking scholastic aptitude tests, scenes that resemble loud crowded outdoor protests that reveal the significance of these examinations to high school seniors.  The story then cuts to the murder of one boarding school student, Yujin Taylor (deftly played by TV actor Sung Joon), and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, which are slowly revealed in alternating timelines.

Key to this narrative is a new student named June (David Lee, also known as Lee Da-wit), who transfers to Yujin’s prestigious school but quickly finds himself suffocated by the cold prison-like confines of the building.  It is an environment where educators turn a blind eye to the students, dubious test scores are displayed on giant TV screens, 11 p.m. lights-out curfews are the norm and students shell out 1 million won a month for private tutors.  June, who is raised by a single mother struggling to make ends meet, quickly finds himself being rejected in every sense of the word, and increasingly turning to his favorite subject of science.  One of his papers for class on why Pluto got rejected as a planet is an obvious connection to not only June’s fate, but the fates of many other classmates who have been kept out of the elite group of Top 10 students aiming for slots at Seoul National University.  Eventually June tires of the alienation and wants to belong in that group, no matter what sacrifices he must make to do so.

On paper, some of the events in “Pluto” seem to be outlandish.  But when one considers the insurmountable pressures of rank-and-order that Yujin, June and other classmates face, the lengths that adolescents will go to use each other as sacrificial lambs suddenly seem to be frighteningly realistic – and altogether comprise a cautionary tale to parents about the permanently damaging psychological effects when it comes to winning at all costs.

“Pluto” screens at the 2013 Hong Kong International Film Festival on Wed., Mar. 27, and Sat., Mar. 30.  For ticket information, go to