Review: ‘The Railroad’

"The Railroad" tracks two strangers whose paths lead to an isolated train station on a cold and lonely night. Though it just misses the top mark by keeping protags apart for a little too long before the climax, helmer Park Heung-shik's second outing still registers as a mood piece of distinction. Critical kudos should assist pic's progress on local turf and fest circuit.

A polished item in the very best tradition of recent Korean melodrama, “The Railroad” tracks two strangers whose paths lead to an isolated train station on a cold and lonely night. Though it just misses the top mark by keeping protags apart for a little too long before the climax, helmer Park Heung-shik’s second outing still registers as a mood piece of distinction. Critical kudos should assist pic’s progress on local turf and fest circuit.

Opening sequence briefly posits Hanna (Sohn Tae-young) and Man-soo (Kim Kwang-woo) on the same latenight train bound from Seoul to the last stop before the DMZ dividing the Koreas. That’s as close as they get for the next hour as narrative spins back to shed light on their respective paths.

A graduate in German studies, Hanna works part time as a university lecturer and is having a long-term affair with a married professor yet to spend a full night with her and clearly in no mind to leave his family. Despite the obvious signs, her hopes remain high that a special birthday tryst she’s arranged will turn the tide. Far happier on the surface is Moon-san, a train driver who makes jokes over the p.a. and tells his passengers the quickest way between destinations is to “travel with the one you love.”

Long before they meet proper, Park hints at the connecting lines with parallel scenes of the characters engaged in similar activities. From the mundaneness of showering to conversations with parents urging the need for marriage and family, a sense of destiny is elegantly being drawn.

In the film’s only real structural flaw, too much of these separate lives is revealed before Hanna and Man-soo are woken up at the last stop and told there’s no return train until morning. Once they’ve overcome initial awkwardness and checked into a hotel with strictly platonic intentions, the talk is tilted just a little too heavily toward events the audience is already aware of. Nevertheless, there is still much poignancy onscreen as confessions of the heart and details of traumatic experiences are exchanged.

Wonderfully well controlled perfs by Kim and Sohn ensures what’s happening to these lost souls hits viewers where it’s intended to.

Among the many pleasures offered by “The Railroad” is its beautiful visual scheme. Using the widescreen frame to its fullest, Bak Ki-ung’s camera captures strikingly symmetrical imagery and moves assiduously from the antiseptic tones of early passages to a much warmer palette once the characters are united and hearts are open. Rest of tech package is classy in every department, with Yoon Min-hwa’s lush score applied with pinpoint precision.

The Railroad

South Korea

Production

A Min Film and Km Culture production. (International sales: Km Culture, Seoul). Produced by Park Gok-ji, Park Moo-seung. Directed, written by Park Heung-shik.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Bak Ki-ung; editors, Park Gok-ji, Suh Yong-doug; music, Yoon Min-hwa; production designer, Kim Eui-jeung. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents -- competing), Oct. 14, 2006. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Kim Kang-woo, Sohn Tae-young. (Korean dialogue)
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