The quote proudly displayed in the foyer of the Se Young High School that plays host to Shin Su-won’s Pluto (2012) is a far cry from the scholarly benchmark that welcomed guests to Plato’s Academy. “Education is like a double-edged sword. It may be turned to dangerous uses if it is not properly handled.” The inscription might be ascribed to Wu Ting-fang, a late 19th century Chinese diplomat, but his words ring truer than ever in this potent modern thriller that explores the lengths that students will go to for success. Korean cinema has made a habit of exploring the darker side of its nation’s youth, and Pluto confidently follows in the footsteps of the likes of Bleak Night (2010) and The King of Pigs (2011).
Whereas those films put focus on their characters, Su-won is happy to leave hers a little more blurry, instead opting for a macabre satire on the cultural demand to obtain a top-ranking education. Top student Yujin (Sung Joon) has fallen foul of a double-edged sword of his own when his body is found in the woods and the jealousy of his roommate June (Lee Da-wit) is cited as the likely motive. When June is realised from custody for a lack of evidence, he returns to the school with a rucksack full of homemade nitroglycerin and takes hostage several other members of Yujin’s A+ gang. Through flashbacks, their serpentine histories with the deceased are revealed. June arrives at the school as a cleaver outsider who considers himself the discarded ex-planet Pluto in comparison to the shining star of Yujin.
When Yujin asserts that Pluto is too far away and unstable, June questions the inherent assumptions about where exactly the centre of the universe is. The school, however, clearly believes that things revolve around Yujin and his nine elite classmates who are, unsurprisingly, the only students privileged enough to afford additional tuition. As June strives for acceptance by the smartest kids in school, his country’s wealth-divide is played out against a taut backdrop of parental coercion and societal pressure that have created a horrifyingly self-entitled schoolyard aristocracy. Proceedings are shot with a cool, distancing lens that every so often glides down shadowy corridors building a palpable tension in tandem with some inventive sound design. The menace of these students’ ambitions, combined with the slick cinematic style, leave the mystery of how events will transpire key to Pluto’s success. That it never really scratches the polished surface of its characters to provide more than cursory personal motivations does hold it back a little, but the thick atmosphere, pointed critiques, and philosophical allusions heartily complement an engaging narrative.