In two different locations, a man and a woman make their way onto a night-time train. Both of them look a little the worse for wear, staggering slightly, not sure where they are or where they are going, possibly drunk, but certainly dazed, as if they have each suffered a tremendous shock which has left them reeling and wondering where their lives are going. As the train makes it way into the night through the outskirts of Seoul, snow gently falls...
The opening scene of Railroad makes a strong impression, leaving the viewer wondering what has happened to these characters and what is going to happen when they eventually meet. But that’s not going to happen for a while, as the film steps back a month to examine the events that take place in their lives. The woman is Lee Hanna (Son Tae Young), a part-time lecturer at a college in Seoul. She is dissatisfied with her work, which consists largely of marking student grades, and unhappy in her love-life, having an affair with the professor of the German Studies faculty where she works. The young man is Kim Man Soo (Kim Kang Woo), a driver on the Seoul underground system. It’s a routine job which he diligently follows to the letter and to the each second of the timetable, and he has little other life. Even his restless dreams are filled with the images of the train running through the tunnels, his only contact with people seeing them lined-up along the platform, his only interaction with them through an intercom. The one bright spot in his routine is his meeting with a mysterious young woman who waits for him once a month at one of the stations.
Slowly and gradually, the film shows the extent of their lives within its limited confines, extending it to take in Korean society in a wider context, examining attitudes towards marriage, relationships and careers. Both Hanna and Man Soo are under pressure from their parents to marry, to settle down and live a more stable, ordered, conventional life – but although unhappy with their present circumstances, the idea of being married with kids doesn’t really appeal. Yet they feel the pressure placed on them to conform, to have a girlfriend, to have a husband, to have a steady career and be normal.
Director Park Heung-shik depicts well the difficult position both people find themselves in. The outside world is shown as a cold and bleak place, while the places they live and work are sterile, minimal, functional underground stations, corridors and hotel rooms – unthreatening but unadventurous. In those hotel rooms the television broadcasts nothing but blunt statistics on the numbers of unemployed people in country or shows mechanical sex between a couple on a porn channel. The people they meet are polite and efficient, but uncaring and lacking compassion, particularly when both Hanna and Man Soo, on that cold, wintry night with the snow falling on the railroad tracks around them find themselves at the end of the line and badly in need of someone to reach out and understand them.
The perfection of the set-up, the reflection in the outer world of the interior lives of the characters and the slow, steady pace of The Railroad has a sense of the bitter romanticism of Hur Jin-ho about it. There’s a constant sense of impending tragedy and the eventual need for catharsis that recalls One Fine Spring Day, but occasionally, the slightly schematic storyline has the airbrushed quality of April Snow. Park Heung-shik however avoids letting the film slip into the melodrama of two people caught up in their own obsessions by trying to provide a wider social context to the story. Reaching the end of the line with no through train to North Korea, the director perhaps suggests a similar trauma affecting Korean society that people haven’t come to terms with, further alluding to the inevitable difficulties that could come through a possible future reunification, referring to the example of Germany. It’s an interesting issue to consider, but it doesn’t fit convincingly within the context of Hanna and Man Soo’s problems. And if the ending is somewhat anticlimactic, it at least doesn’t give the sense that answers can easily be found.
Railroad is released in the Korea by Fantom Entertainment as a Limited Edition 2-DVD set. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 3.
Filmed on High-Definition, the progressive transfer to DVD is almost flawless. Colours, tones, sharpness and definition are excellent and even shadow detail is better than usual on a Korean release. Panning movements are perhaps not quite as smooth as they could be and there might be some blue-line on edges, but these are very minor issues and scarcely evident. There are no noticeable issues with digital or compression artefacts. A quite impressive transfer.
Similarly there are no issues with the three audio options, all of which are strong and clear. The DTS mix is discreet and effective, but not noticeably different or better than the Dolby Digital 5.1 option.
English subtitles are provided for the film and make the effort of translating signs, phone and PC text messages. There are a few minor spelling errors.
The majority of the extra features are not subtitled, although the one of perhaps most interest – an earlier short film by director Park Heung-shik – does happily have optional English subtitles.
Disc One contains a Commentary with director Park Heung Sik, Kim Kang Woo and Son Tae Young. The remainder of the extra features are on Disc Two. They include the standard Making Of (24:16), which has interviews with the director and cast and shows behind-the-scenes preparation, rehearsals and filming of a number of scenes. Footage of the film’s Premiere (5:01) is shown, the principals introducing the film to a select audience. A Photo Shoot (4:36) reunites the main actors for promotional and poster images. There’s a visit to the University Campus Setting (6:55) for the film, where Park Heung Sik and Kim Kang Woo answer some questions. The Theatrical Trailer (2:02) is deep and moody. None of the above features have English subtitles.
Also included, with optional English subtitles, is a 1999 short film by Park Heung Sik, A Day (20:00). An unemployed construction worker, broken-up from his wife and child, finds himself struggling to get by and find some money to celebrate his mother’s memorial day. Again there’s very much the same sense here of a person on the edge, and there are images here that show how easy is can be for many in Korean society to fall through the cracks. It’s a beautiful little piece, nicely shot, perfectly paced, evocative of seaon, place and mood. The film is presented letterboxed at 1.85:1 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. It seems to be included as a hidden extra since I couldn’t find a way to access it from the menu – but can be viewed if you go directly to Title 5.
An impressive debut feature, one that builds on the mood and character of his 1999 short film A Day, Park Heung-shik’s The Railroad has the schematic qualities of a smooth Korean romantic melodrama, but below the surface the very real issues of alienation in modern Korean society come through, showing how difficult it can be for individuals trapped in routine jobs or troubled relationships to make a meaningful connection with people and deal with trauma in their lives. The qualities of the film are well served by the impeccable transfer to DVD on this Korean Region 3 Limited Edition.