Monday, February 11, 2013

Berlinale 2013: Pluto (명왕성, Myeongwangsong) 2012

One of the ten Korean films screening at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.

Film festivals can be a great place to catch up with big films from established luminaries of world cinema but for the ardent cinephile, the most exciting thing is to make a fresh discovery. With patience and some discerning selecting, you will almost always come away with a few pleasant surprises but, while it is wonderful to stumble upon an accomplished debut or sophomore films from emerging talents in the field, every so often you will see something that gives you a special feeling. It is an unmistakable sense of being part of something new and exciting, in the presence of an artist with raw talent, effortless ability and an intuitive understanding of film. These spine-tingling moments don’t happen at every festival but when they do it makes all the searching worthwhile.

Shin Su-won’s second feature Pluto gave me this feeling. However, before singing too much of its praises, I should say that it is a flawed work. More than the film itself, it is the potential of the director that gave me goosebumps. Without a doubt, Shin is about to be a major player in Korean cinema and could well become a force on the international scene before long.

A high school student has been murdered by one of his classmates. Suspicion quickly falls on one of his classmates, who is brought in for questioning by the police. The victim was the top student in his school, a prestigious and intense institution that sends many of it students to the country’s top-ranked university. He was part of a select group of the school’s best performers, a circle that his classmate, with his poor grades, was desperate to be a part of. Within this cutthroat society, kids will do anything to get ahead

Shin’s first film Passerby #3 (2010) was a small but wonderful autobiographical feature that chronicled the difficulties she faced as she tried to set up her debut. That was a strong and confident film but within only a few minutes, it becomes clear that she has taken a big leap with her second work. The opening sequence’s mise-en-scene, with its brisk parallel editing and superb cinematography is immediately gripping, signaling the arrival of a new force on the filmmaking scene.

Pluto employs a number of tricks to spice up its narrative but Shin never overdoes it. The film’s fractured chronology, as well as its editing tricks, excellent sound design and inspired art direction are just enough to lift the story without ever overwhelming it. The young cast is also formidable, though aside from the lead David Lee, they are perhaps a little old to be playing high school students. Lee’s performance, which requires him to go through a series of changes is a revelation while Seong Joon is also strong as the school’s top student. Kim Kkobbi, one of the premier indie actresses in Korea, continues her run of impressive roles.

The only downsides of the film are its aggressive plotting which, in certain instances, does away with credibility, its slightly bloated running time and its conclusion that hits the nail on the head a little harder than it needed to. It’s true that for some these issues may be enough to dampen their enthusiasm for the film but on the whole it is remarkably impressive.

An immersive showcase of consummate filmmaking ability and a powerful examination of one of Korea’s oft-highlighted societal ills, Pluto is a tour-de-force. Shin Su-won can only go up from here.

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