We often claim that mainstream cinema becomes unbelievable in its attempts at spectacle. This is usually the case, but such statements should force us to examine exactly why we watch films in the first place. What function should films ultimately aspire to in society? Entertainment? Art? Isn't the whole thing, as I tend to think, entirely subjective? Regardless of how we feel, it may be beneficial to rethink the role of spectacle and genre cinema and its ties to reality. As humans, we make narratives about ourselves, about our lives and struggles. However, mainstream cinema demands a certain detachment from reality, as it exists in a strange reality where expected narrative resolutions allow characters to overcome almost any kind of obstacle.
These tensions between the desire for realistic stories and mainstream genre tropes was played out brilliantly in director Shin Su-Won’s first feature Passerby #3 (2010). It featured a struggling filmmaker who tried to juggle supporting her family through and the constant pressures of trying to get her film funded. It showed a lot of promise and her film Pluto delivers in every way.
Considering Shin’s previous film discussed how hard it was to create a truly original scenario within mainstream Korean film industry, and indeed recent comments from Darcy Paquet have supported such claims, it’s amazing to see just how singular a work Pluto manages to be whilst also sticking to its genre. The premise is simple; the top student at a prestigious school is murdered, causing a ripple effect which allows student Kim Joon to uncover dark secrets of corruption behind the top 10 ranked students at the school. However, what sounds like a simple murder mystery on paper comes across as an appeal to humanity on screen.
The film uses the real realities of Korean students, the intense pressure and endless work hours, to exaggerate the narrative into a compelling genre experience. Shin shows a clear mastery of the medium, creating a disorientating and utterly engaging work whilst never forgetting the human narrative at the heart of it all. Kim Joon’s actions in the film can be read as something of a wake-up call to his fellow students and faculty; a final plea to stop all the bitter rivalries and bribed favouritism. Shin uses her history as a teacher to fully expose the inherent cracks in the Korean school system, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before something breaks beyond repair.
To be honest, I was amazed by Pluto. Each of the characters was given enough breathing room, and the non-linear narrative kept things paced well enough. The cast was excellent, in particular rising star Kim Kkob-bi, and the film featured some flashy visuals which added to, rather than detracted from, the emotional impact of the film. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Pluto - a film in which all of the parts seem to fit just right.
Pluto shows that Korean cinema deserves space to breathe and explore different narratives and ideas. The leap in production and confidence between Passerby #3 and Pluto is truly impressive, and it deserves to push Shin Su-Won to the forefront of contemporary Korean directors. Pluto is a stunning and intriguing film which fully understands how to implement the fantastical into genre cinema without sacrificing on its human elements.
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