South Korea once again proves it’s a nation making some of the most exciting cinema of our times with Pluto. A tremendous hybrid of thriller and social satire from Shin Suwon, the film takes the theme of academic competition and cranks the notch up to eleven.
It’s set almost entirely within the walls of a dystopian all-boys boarding school in which the top ten students, based on a series of rigorous tests at the end of every semester, will graduate into the National University of Seoul. A new arrival at the school, June (David Lee), a bright kid with a fascination for astronomy, is confident he can break into the elite but in spite of his sharp mind and impressive test scores finds himself unable to rank.
Soon, however, June uncovers the real reason for his exclusion: a twisted conspiracy among the cream of the crop – including his unkind roommate Yu-Jin Taylor (Sung June) – to keep out those who threaten their stature and punish anyone who uncovers their secret. With the discovery, he’s faced with a choice: risk taking them down with the knowledge he’s acquired alongside hacker friend Su-Jin (Kim Khob-bi) or join their warped circle of lies, rape and even murder.
Director Shin Suwon, a middle school teacher before turning her hand to cinema, understands the class prejudice in the Korean education system and captures it in wild, absurd and unique fashion. Pluto’s wrought with satire, full of gallows humor and black comedy, but by cutting back and forth between the film’s climactic hostage situation involving June and his school colleagues and the events that led up to it, it plays out more as an icy and suspenseful thrill ride.
Pluto is also excellently crafted in spite of the modest budget. Shin Suwon’s slick vision is coupled perfectly with an atmospheric score and tight editing. Also worthy of praise are the young cast whose humane portrayals of the unfairness, jealousy and competition that plague the school and provide the catalyst for their insane conspiracy ground the extreme story at least somewhat in reality.