Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the fierce competition in Korean high schools to get into prestigious universities. It was inspired by the movie Pluto, which I saw in its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival. After the screening a friend introduced me to the director, Shin Suwon. I found her back story completely fascinating and we agreed to have breakfast the next morning with her producer, Francis Lim, and talk about the movie, which is about a relatively poor student named June who gets into an elite high school whose students normally go on to the best universities. Because of his background, his new classmates, in particular a clique of over-achievers, bully him. Though he hates these students June himself is so caught up in the competition to get into Seoul National University that he endeavors to join the clique, which has all sorts of schemes and secret methods for passing tests. Pluto is a thriller structured around the murder of one of the elite students. June is a suspect, and it’s his evolution from a bright and imaginative young man (“Pluto” refers to his theory of why the planet was kicked out of the solar system in 2006, a nifty metaphor for his own situation) to “monster” that constitutes the bulk of the drama. The “torture chamber” refers to the basement of the school where the clique holds their meetings and which is rumored to have been a KCIA interrogation room in the 1980s.
After the jump is a transcript of our conversation.
-I understand that before you became a filmmaker and while you were a middle school teacher you published two novels. Were they successful?
Shin Suwon: The first one was successful. It sold about 10,000 copies. The second one not so much. They were teenage stories.
-About teenagers or for teenagers?
SS: For teenagers. Then while I was teaching I was accepted at the Korean National Arts University. Lee Chang-dong teaches there but I didn’t have the chance to take his class. I did study under Hong Sang-soo, though.
-What was your first script?
SS: The first few scripts I did were actually rewrites of other people’s scripts.
-Was it difficult to change careers in mid-life?
Francis Lim: She graduated from Seoul National University and then she became a teacher. And then ten years later she wanted to change. It was difficult because KNUA is a national university and it’s focused on the arts. Lots of young talent want to go there so it’s very competitive. She applied and they accepted her because maybe they recognized her talent, but the process is different. With most universities you have to pass an exam and they look at the high school you went to. At KNUA they simply look at the student and the student’s talent and potential. In that way it’s a different kind of university, but it’s still difficult to get into.
-Why did you decide to tackle this particular theme as a thriller?
SS: I wanted to tell this story in a thriller style mainly for commercial reasons, but what I really wanted to do is to show parents and older people why June had to do what he did and I thought a thriller structure would explain it best. I wanted to show the reasons why he ended up doing what he did.
-Thrillers also appeal to a wider audience. I assume your previous films had a narrower audience.
SS: Passerby #3 is a story about private life, about one person’s experience. Pluto is much wider. I wanted to say something about society in general and say it to society. That’s the reason I chose this structure. I also wanted to show the step-by-step process in the change that comes over the protagonist, from an innocent young man to a monster. Still, I don’t want it to be considered a genre film.
-Are any of the plot points in the film based on actual incidents?
SS: Of course, there is no incident in Korea that happened just like this. But the attitudes I show are real and they are based on my own experience, as both a teacher and a mother. My daughter is now in university, but when I was doing research for the movie she was in high school.
FL: At the time, my son was also in high school, and we spent a lot of time discussing the problem.
SS: But most of what went into the movie was based on my experience as a teacher. In particular my memory of two boys. One of them was very intelligent, very talented, but his grades were very low. He had lots of problems at home. His parents were always fighting, often violently. They’d threaten each other with knives. When I first encountered him as a student I thought he wasn’t interested in education, but he wrote a report once and I was impressed by its intelligence, which was unusual for such a young man. I watched him over the years and became more distressed, because he slowly turned into a monster. It was then that I found out his background. And then there was another student who was very smart, especially in science. He even invented a pimple cream by himself, like June in the movie. He was from a normal family, but he couldn’t adapt to the education system and he changed, too, over time. It was too difficult for him to keep up with other students who were obviously less talented. Eventually, I felt useless because I couldn’t help them. For most of these students the most important learning is done outside of school, with tutors and private lessons. Very little of what they need to advance to higher education is taught to them in the school system.
-Is there any counseling done in public schools?
SS: There is counseling but most students think it’s pointless and so don’t seek it out. Counselors are not professionals, they’re just teachers giving advice. The students don’t think they can help them except scholastically.
-Money seems to be very important. Do parents actually give teachers money to help their children?
SS: Yes, some parents try to give money to teachers, and some teachers accept it while others reject it. I had only one such experience. A parent gave me an envelope with some money in it and I was very embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do because if I gave the money back it would have been very rude. So instead I used the money to buy some books and gave those books to my students as gifts. That sort of thing is common. When I was teaching I heard of a colleague who taught in high school who received some money and in exchange altered the test results of a student. Of course, not all teachers do that, and I am worried about the movie, that people will see it and think all public school teachers take money.
-The film implies that the school administration doesn’t discourage this type of thing, and hushes up serious problems so as not to offend parents.
SS: When I was teaching there was one student who was bullied for being stupid. And he wasn’t stupid at all. But other students didn’t like him and attacked him and he changed. He became stupid. But what’s important is that the attacks weren’t physical. They were psychological. When I was writing the script there was an incident at a very elite high school where a student informed a teacher about another group of students who were doing bad things. And the teacher confronted the group. Later, the student who informed the teacher was attacked on Facebook.
-Do students ever commit suicide because of these attacks?
SS: In this case the student did commit suicide. And the papers reported it in a shocking way. Bullying is very common among young people, but the situation has changed. In the past they used physical violence, which is something you can deal with, but now the students are very clever. They know how to use words as weapons. It was very shocking to read that.
-The root of the problem is the competitive atmosphere. Do teachers ever tell students to take it easy?
SS: There are two types of teachers. One type thinks of the students’ welfare and tells them to take it easy. And then the other type pushes students to excel in extreme ways. The teachers themselves are pushed to do that by the administration. When I taught, most of my students’ grades were low, and at the teachers meetings the principal would always ask me, “Why are your students so low?” And I would always answer, “I don’t know.” It’s because I also was being worn down by the competition. Some teachers under those circumstances cheat themselves. They give hints to their students about possible answers to future tests so that they do well on the tests. The teachers are just as much a part of the system as the students are. They’re evaluated based on results. The middle school where I taught was in a well-to-do district of Seoul. The mothers would get together in the coffee shop after an examination to analyze the test results and go over the answers. Then they would call me and other teachers and say, “I don’t think the correct answer on this test was really correct.” They would challenge us and I was really shocked. You know “Gangnam Style”? Gangnam is the most elite area in Korea now, and I heard that parents there enroll their kids in expensive private prep schools where the parents themselves take pricey classes to receive counseling from experts who coach them on how to get their kids into elite universities. What’s unfortunate it that this approach is actually effective. It works as far as getting those rich kids into the better schools. In the past you would often hear stories about a kid from a poor family who got into a good university by studying hard, and then went on to be a famous prosecutor or politician, but you never hear about that at all any more. In terms of education there is a huge gap between poor families and rich families. So what happens, rich kids go to top universities and then their kids go to the top universities. People with less money just don’t have a chance.
-My favorite line in the movie is “university is for the untalented.” What did you mean by that?
SS: I also like that line. As I mentioned before, when I was a teacher I would sometimes encounter a talented student. The problem is that the school evaluates success with grades in all subjects, from the beginning to the end. But some kids excel in one area while others thrive in different areas. But teachers are made to push them to do well in everything, and their results are determined by their overall performance. They have to do their very best in every subject, otherwise they will fail. Then they are tested on all these subjects and those who do well go on to the good universities. But once they’re in the good university you ask them, “Why are you here? What do you want to do?” And most of them don’t know how to answer. “I don’t know” is their answer, just like mine was. So what I wanted to say with that line is that, you should have a dream. You should have something you want to do. Remember at the end of the movie, June says, “Do my best? Have a dream? No, I just want to destroy everything.” That’s the worst part of the system. The students who fall behind in the system, even a little bit, don’t see the point in school. They just give up. In class they just sleep, because they see how pointless it is. The teachers hate them for it, which makes matters even worse.
-So what advice did you give to your own children?
SS: I always said, “Do what you want to do.” But then they complain, because other parents are working so hard to help their kids succeed. But I tell them they’re on their own and then they say, “Why is my mother so different?”
-One last thing. Where did you find the torture chamber?
FL: It was actually in a real high school. It had some flaws and they had to renovate it, so we asked if we could use it. She changed one of the corridors in the school for the movie. They allowed us to shoot and change the decor but they didn’t know what we were using it for.