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Original Title:
Kyeongeui seon

South Korea 2006


Park Heung-shik

Kim Kang-woo
Son Tae-yeong
Baek Jong-hak
Cha Seo-won
Ji Jong-eun
Oh Jeong-se
Eom Soo-jeong
Ahn Seon-yeong
Kim Dong-hwa
Kim Seung-wuk
Lee Ho-jae
Jeong In-gi
Park Jeong-soo

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The Railroad

Story: Kim Man-soo (Kim Kang-woo) works as a train operator. His life is very linear and unspectacular. His father also tells him that it's time for him to think about marriage. And in fact, Man-soo actually knows a girl he is interested in. In regular intervals an unknown girl (Cha Seo-won) provides him with something to read and to eat for his break, but she won't tell him her name. One day, however, a girl jumps right in front of the train Man-soo is operating. Man-soo gets some days off and tries to overcome the shock by drowning it in alkohol. He takes a train and only gets off at the final stop - the north Korean border. But he isn't the only one on board of the train. There is also another hurt soul with him on the train.
Lee Hanna (Son Tae-yeong) is a lecturer for German language at an university. She only works as a part-timer and feels somehow useless and lonely. Only her affair with her superior (Baek Jong-hak), a married man, makes her happy. The day comes when his wife finally finds out about the affair and confronts Hanna in public. Drunken and hurt in her feelings Hanna gets on a train and drives to the final station. Together with Man-soo she walks to a hotel, where the two strangers start to talk about their hurt feelings...

Review: "The Railroad" is a quiet and simple movie, far away from your usual commercial stuff, which is just what makes it so emotionally involving. The film takes its time to tell its story, and thus the viewer has to bring some patience with him, too. But it's also really worth it, because in the end you will be rewarded with a "beautiful" movie. "Beautiful", because "The Railroad" is a drama away from any hospital stories or love dramas. Instead the movie stands out with its sincerity. The plot revolves around two emotionally wounded individuals, who just happen to get on the same train and get off at the last station. The director deliberately works with this picture, because the snow-covered train station near the north Korean border in fact could be the middle of nowhere. But is it also the final stop in the lives of the protagonists, or will they regain the courage to go back into the world and go on with their lives?

In its core the story is everything but inventive, and at times it also feels a bit too stretched for the movie's 108 minutes running time, but it's specially enthralling because of its simplicity and realistic approach.
"The Railroad" starts with Man-soo and Hanna, two hurt souls, who sit in the same train. The director uses well implemented flashbacks to introduce us to the lives of these two individuals, yet also doesn't forget to keep a good balance by switching between Hanna's and Man-soo's story. Basically, the two stories have no connection to one another, except that there is an emotionally hurt individual in its focus, who feels miserably about himself and his life.
The story about Man-soo, a train operator, whose monotonous life is depicted by repetitive shots of railroad tracks and a train route that never changes, is a one that sheds some light on the life of an ordinary worker. Still, even though we have to find out that Man-soo's profession isn't really exciting, we nonetheless think of it as an interesting job, eventually. All of us already may have thought about how a train operator must feel when there is some of those guys that out of nowhere jump right in front of the train to end their life once and for all. It's a traumatic experience, which we learn to understand better after watching Man-soo having to struggle with it. Luckily, the movie also doesn't waste too much time on this story angle, though.

The little love story between the train operator and a newswoman, which isn't explicitly worked out, is nice to look at and could have had what it takes to become more, but "The Railroad" isn't a romantic flick in the end, which is why we have to expect some cutting back, of course.
Despite all that, it remains questionable why the unknown woman, whose identity is not revealed until later on in the movie, had to jump in front of the train. There may be one or two small reasons we can come up with, but somehow they all seem to be too trivial to be real. The director really could have taken some time to deliver a few more answers.
Hanna's story is especially interesting for me as a German, as Hanna works as a German language lecturer. A profession that could also be my future one day. Or maybe not - who knows. I surely would have to learn a few more years Korean, that's for sure...
Nevertheless, you have to ask yourself why the script writer and director puts a German language teacher in his film's focus. That's actually quite easy to answer: Director Park Heung-shik studied film theory in Berlin, and thus brought some of his personal experiences and insight into the movie. So, it's also no wonder that aside from Hermann Hesse and GŁnter Grass, Christa Wolf, one of the most remarkable german female writers of modern literature, who seems to be especially well-known in Korea, also is referred to in this movie. Anyway, just on a side note, in Korea there is read more german literature or literature in general, than in Germany. Sad, but true...

Hanna's unusual profession lets her have doubts about herself, since she believes that she hasn't learned anything useful. This becomes especially apparent during her conversation with her friends. Here, we also get to see more of the loneliness deep inside her. What she is actually hoping of her affair with her superior is a bit shortsighted and naive, because, naturally, she wants him to leave his wife and be with her. The reason why Hanna is so strongly emotionally bound to her superior, is something we only get to understand later on.
Eventually, Man-soo and Hanna end up at the same train station, since their aimless journey had to come to an end at this final station. The two slowly start a conversation, but interestingly the first words they exchange are full of lies. The reason for this is simple: They want to protect themselves with their lies and don't want to get hurt again so soon. But they might also just show some of their wishful thinking.
When they arrive at a hotel, they decide that their short stay isn't worth to take seperate rooms. It's a bit odd, and the erotic tension, that naturally arises when a young man and woman share the same room, gets underlined by the fact, that both of them channel-surf when they are alone, and end up at an erotic channel.

Director Park simply plays with his audience by implementing these scenes. A sudden romance just wouldn't feel right and wouldn't fit into the movie either. Park Heung-sik knows this and doesn't let his film go down the drain during the last minutes. Instead the two learn to couch what's making them feel so bad, and they find someone to hold them and give them strength. Sadly, Man-soo is the only one to bare his soul, since Hanna simply expresses her pain through a few words. However, it seems that she can get strength out of the conversation with Man-soo, too. This all leads to an ending, that might be somewhat unspectacular, but which is nonetheless quite moving. The warmth which the "The Railroad" radiates, is something you will most likely only feel fully when the credits start to roll over the screen. Retrospectively. It's especially this warmth, which makes me give this actually simple drama about pain, loneliness and the power of living on in this cruel world, a clear recommendation.
Moreover, the film might have been shot with only a small budget at hand, but it luckily doesn't show. The only thing that's a bit bothersome is that the movie doesn't feel as a whole all the time.
It's movies like "The Railroad", small low budget productions that give a simple but moving portray of life without unnecessary flourish, that for the most part made Korean cinema what it is today. There isn't only Kim Ki-duk, you know?

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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