MOVIE OF THE MONTH – JULY 2013
Pluto opens with an unforgettable footage—a look at a day when the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), a standardized university entrance test which is held only once a year and lasts for nine hours, is underway. Parents are praying at temples, police officers and road blocks are everywhere, making sure that nothing will disturb the test. Apparently, all the adults’ working lives are put to a halt on that one morning each year to avoid traffic jams that could delay the students’ arrivals to testing sites. Even flights are not permitted during the test’s speaking portion. After that, the scene moves to a group of masked figures in the woods, running down a hill to hunt a white rabbit, intersecting with the same group hunting a much bigger prey—a high school student.
American-born Yoojin Taylor has just been killed, and the most likely suspect is one of his classmates and ex-roommate, Joon. The police questions Joon along with the other classmates, and all seem to more or less agree that Joon, who looks jealous of Yoojin, is likely the killer. But due to insufficient evidence, the police have no choice but to let Joon go. We then slowly discover what happened before Yoojin’s death and also what follows, in alternating timeline.
Joon is a new transfer student. In his old school, he was in the top 1%, but here in Se Yeong High School he placed 67th. He studies until his nose bleeds but still can’t seem to keep up with the elite top 10, who are granted access to a special study group. With the students’ scores and ranks displayed on TV screens every week, it’s a dog-eat-dog world for the students, with members of the elite clique doing whatever they can to hold their positions. Yoojin Taylor is one of them. The ranks of the students between the second and tenth fluctuate, but Yoojin stays on top, without fail. Unlike Joon, Yoojin comes from a privileged background. While Joon is raised by a single mother who struggles to make ends meet, Yoojin seems to have no problem with money. His parents live in the US, but Yoojin has got everything he needs.
We have heard how tough the competition among students is in Korea. We have heard about the high suicide rate. But you can’t help but shake your head and stare in shock seeing what these students have to face, what they are capable of doing, what the society has turned them into. The books a student has to carry when he attends the top 10 special class are enough to fill a carry-on luggage. When the lights are off each night at 11, the students go outside and continue to study in hallways. One of the privileges of the elite clique? Not having to turn off their lights at 11, so they can study until whatever time they want.
Money talks, and it sure talks loudly in the Korean education system. Cram schools are more than plentiful and according to surveys, parents can spend 16% of their incomes on private tutoring for their children. The rich kids probably even get the top tutors who hold one-on-one classes in Gangnam. Charging millions of won, these tutors can somehow give the students an edge, making them able to reach the top ranks and the rich parents spare no expense to get their children that edge. A privileged student like Yoojin can constantly lead the race while less privileged one like Joon can only stare at his back, constrained by his family’s financial background. The amount of pressure mounted on the students by their parents and the society can drive the students to do the unthinkable but then again is there a way to break this unhealthy chain of events? It seems like everyone has gone too far, the high standards of the system has backlashed too hard.
The title comes from a discussion Joon has with his teacher and Yoojin in a class, about the reasons why Pluto is disregarded as a planet, one of which is because it’s too far from the sun, which is seen as the center of the solar system. Joon, a science buff, defends Pluto’s stance. Like Pluto, Joon is disregarded in the society, in which social and economic status is the center. Trying hard to climb outside his limitations, Joon puts up with all the obscene bullying from the elite students, not realizing that he has never been one of them, and will never be. He was born under the wrong star.
Superbly acted by a talented young cast and lead by 19 year-old Lee Da Wit (Lee David), Pluto delivers an interesting character study and a dumbfounding look at the Korean education system. Director and writer Shin Su Won used to be a school teacher and she actually graduated from the Seoul National University—a seat there is the one Holy Grail all the students in the movie strive to attain. Uncompromising in displaying the evils and flaws of her own country, Shin is one director to watch for. Lee Da Wit is engaging as the center, a clueless boy suddenly plunged into waters too deep, suffocated and trying to get afloat, the curve of his character development interestingly holds your attention. Twenty-three year-old Sung Joon plays the cold and aloof Yoojin elegantly (in no small way aided by his heavy voice), his character obscuring dark secrets of his own which are then revealed slowly. Kim Kkobbi, who was stellar in one of my favorite Korean films Breathless, has a small yet memorable role in the movie. With such a powerful theme and characters, accompanied with a fittingly eerie music score from Ryu Jae Ah and filled with moody shots from cinematographer Yun Ji Un, Pluto has all the ingredients it needs to be one of this year’s must-see films. Watching Pluto reminds me a lot of Bleak Night and both are very, very special works indeed.
Pluto was screened at the 2013 Korean Film Festival.