Last year, I visited Korea for the first time and made it a priority to attend the Busan International Film Festival after hearing much about it through social media and friends. The experience was out of this world - never had I been to a festival that an entire city was in tune with in every kind of way.
There were two films that stood out to me the most amongst all the Korean films I saw at the festival. One was Kim Ki-duk's outstanding film Pieta, which was also included in the 2013 program of KOFFIA, an excellent comeback from the elusive Korean director. The other film was from a relatively new director and a new force to be reckoned with in the Korean film industry, and was possibly the biggest surprise for me at the festival. I had not heard anything about the film, or the director, and was going with gut when I decided to grab a ticket to see it.
The film was Pluto, directed by ex-school teacher turned filmmaker Shin Su-won whose short film Circle Line (also screened as part of the K-Shorts Showcase at KOFFIA this year) was awarded the Canal+ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. For a film that was made without the support of large funding bodies, Pluto is an incredible achievement for the kind of film it is and I would gladly tell you why.
June (Lee Da-wit) is a new transfer at an elite, private high school, where the top 1% of the senior students are prepared to go to extremes to get into prestigious universities. Upon entering the school, June struggles to keep up with the top ranking students and begins to fall behind. When he learns of a secret study group comprising of the cream of the crop in his class, he is adamant to join them, but in order to do so, he must complete several tasks beyond his comfort zone. When June is framed for the murder of a classmate, he sets off on an investigation into the group and their dark secrets, and eventually takes off onto a destructive path jeopardising the safety of himself and others.
What might seem like yet another story about high school students and the age old, cliched elite vs the underdog theme, Pluto redefines it by telling the story using the planetary system as a metaphor. The first quarter of the film is done in a unique style that is almost documentary-like, with stunning visuals for an independently made film, explaining the expulsion of the planet Pluto from the solar system. Shin Su-won uses many references to astronomy, which is what makes Pluto stand out from the rest. In a forum with Shin during her visit to Sydney as part of KOFFIA in August, she mentioned she had been influenced by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, and the references to astronomy and the solar system as part of the existentialist questions raised in the film feel reflective of this.
The rest of Pluto has a unique visual style that rivals any independently made film out there today. Cinematographer Yun Ji-un has done a fine job of reflecting the claustrophobic nature of the high school, and discord of the school's social hierarchy. There were some very interesting shots, framed from heights and at oddly uncomfortable angles, and after viewing Pluto for the second time, I could see Shin Su-won's nods to Hitchcock and Kubrick, again. Another interesting thing I picked up in second-viewing was the extremely intricate editing style, which seems to have developed from Shin Su-won's Circle Line. There are scenes where time seems to have come to a halt, yet the clever editing suggests a deeper chaos within them.
The performances in Pluto are something else, too. Lee Da-wit (Romance Joe, Poetry) continues to impress as the quietly destructive June, while newcomer Sung-joon (Dangerously Excited) is excellent as the mysterious, brooding roommate of June and 'leader' of the secret society. Independent film star and one of my favourites Kim Kkot-bbi (Breathless, The King of Pigs) also stars as June's ally and character of the minority in the film. It was incredibly refreshing seeing young, unknown actors alongside each other in a film of this calibre, and I feel that Shin Su-won's direction has been spot on for their characters in Pluto.
This is one impressive independent film. Moody, thrilling, and quietly unsuspecting in the way it slowly builds on June's destructive nature, and the discord of the school's system. Pluto is full of moments that will leave you on tenterhooks, and it is for this reason you should not miss it. Director Shin Su-won's vision is beautiful, and I think Pluto is just the beginning of it.
Pluto screens at the Korean Film Festival in Australia for the last time in Melbourne, Wednesday September 11th at 6pm, at the ACMI Cinemas. Buy your tickets now via ACMI's website.