While I went through the South Korean education system, exam scores had been always important to me and others. My teachers and parents always emphasized that I should get scores as high as possible in every exam, and I was driven to get the highest score in mid-term and final exams just like other young South Korean students. Getting low score was public humiliation, and my parents sometimes whipped or scolded me for that. That was why I was always nervous about exams even though I always prepared myself everyday while doing many homeworks and other things demanded to me.
While I was watching South Korean film “Pluto” during this morning, that depressing memory of my adolescent years haunted me again, and it saddened me more because this darkly tragic adolescent melodrama bitterly told me that nothing has changed much in the South Korean education system. Young students are still being pushed hard into cutthroat competition even before entering high school, and I sometimes hear about students committing suicide from the media every year. That was why I was not so shocked by the serial suicide incidents at my campus several years ago; always driven to competition for higher scores and higher rank every day, some of them are bound to be broken, and, sadly, we all accept such consequence while keeping competing with each other as usual.
The movie suggests a darker possibility through its story which is started with a shocking murder incident. Yoo-jin(Seong Joon), who would graduate with the highest distinction and then enroll in Seoul University(It is No.1 university in South Korea, by the way), is found murdered at the mound behind his high school, and one of Yoo-jin’s study group members is taken by the detectives investigating the case because other study group members point him out as the culprit through their testimonies.
His name is Joon(Lee Da-wit, you probably remember his notable performances in “Poetry”(2010) and “Front Line”(2011)), and he looks rather calm while interrogated by the detectives at the police station. Although he cannot give his alibi immediately, he shrewdly points out that a certain evidence found at the crime scene cannot link him with the murder though it belongs to him, and this bright kid also knows that the cops cannot detain him for more than 48 hours according to the law. The cops have no choice but release Joon although they are a little suspicious about him.
Joon does have something to hide from them, and now I should be more careful about describing the thriller plot of the film. As Joon begins the vengeful execution of his secret plan step by step, the movie also slowly reveals what happened and how everything was led to the murder case as a result through several flashback sequences, and what will be revealed in front of us is not a pretty picture at all. We see how insane and heinous kids can be for maintaining their coveted position and solidifying their future status, and some of what they committed are not just minor misdemeanors.
To Joon, everything looked fine in the beginning. Although his family is not affluent and his only family member is his mother struggling to make ends meet every day, he was luckily transferred to the school of high prestige, and he was happy to be its student. He believes he will fulfil his dream of being an astronomer through this school, and he is willing to study hard if that is required.
He meets Yoo-jin as his roommate, and Joon comes to know about Yoo-jin and his famous study group members. They have remained at the rank of Top 10 while one or two students at the bottom are replaced at times, and every other students in the school is hoping to be included in this prestigious inner circle. They always get the special treatments from the school including a more comfortable study room, and their current score ranks at the school definitely guarantee the tickets to several famous universities, which in turn guarantee promising adult life in the future.
For getting that chance, everyone in the school except these inner circle members is desperate whenever there is an exam. They are all excellent students, but even one problem in exam sheet can seriously affect their ranks, and we see students following after their teacher just for getting extra 1 or 2 points. Nevertheless, the overall rank is not changed much, and Yoo-jin and his friends are usually, if not always, the ones at the top.
Even though he was not treated well by them, Joon wants to be accepted into Yoo-jin’s circle. Although Soo-jin(Kim Kkobbi), a female student sympathetic to him and disdainful of Yoo-jin’s study group, advises him not to care about that, he still desires for becoming one of them, and he quickly discovers that he is willing to do literally anything for them even when he faces the cruelty behind their exemplary appearance.
Inspired by what she witnessed during her teacher career, the director/writer Shin Su-won, who won Canal+ Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her short film “Circle Line”(2012) in last year and recently won Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for this film, made a powerful film both chilling and harrowing in its alarming depiction of the dark side hidden beneath South Korean education system. While mainly focusing on its adolescent characters, the movie indirectly points out how their world has shaped some of them into such cruel, selfish kids through a few adult supporting characters. The principle ignores one of their serious crimes because it can tarnish the school’s reputation, and he is satisfied as long as they study hard and get higher score. Their affluent parents will not mind about anything as long as they remain at the top, and they use every resource they have to secure their dear kids’ position at the school. It is no coincidence that Yoo-jin and his friends are all from rich/affluent family, and, as a poor kid, Joon is painfully reminded of that several times.
Also effectively working as a thriller as two storylines converge, the movie is supported well by its good cast. As the lonely hero who pays more than he imagined for his wish, Lee Da-wit gives a quiet but strong lead performance, and Seong Joon is also good as a cold teenager who turns out to have a heart to our surprise. Kim Kkobbi, who was wonderful in “Breathless”(2008), is likable as a sole warm spot of the story, and Cho Seong-ha, who previously appeared in another sad S Korean adolescent drama “Bleak Night”(2010), has a small but crucial part in the story as an understanding and reasonable cop investigating the case.
Around the end of the story, we find that some characters are more pitiful while other characters are more despicable, and, as the movie tells you in one small acerbic moment around its cathartic ending, they are all expendable in their system. You may wish this is just a fiction, but our reality in South Korea is not so far from what is shown in “Pluto” except its revenge plot, and, considering boiling anger and frustration reflected in this shattering film, I am glad about gun control in our country. Seriously, I really do not want to imagine what can possibly happen if guns are easily accessible to our troubled high school students who must be suffering even at this point. Believe me, they will do anything to be heard, even if that means they have to throw themselves into black hole.
Strange that education, which should humanise us, makes us into dangerous blood thirsty creatures. Jealousy is universal enough, but killing for academic ranking seems a novel plot device..
SC: The movie made me think again about raising kids in South Korea.
Jesus, so brutal. But I’m a hippie who thinks competition is evil and that unforgiving “standards” are mostly bullshit. This movie sounds even more harrowing than the last S Korean flick that messed me up (which you also wrote eloquently about), “Bedeviled.”
“Pluto” sounds like something out of Sir Ken Robinson’s nightmares. http://youtu.be/wX78iKhInsc
SC: It is not a nightmare to many of us here.