"I'm sorry. I should have waited a little longer... but I was so disappointed in you, back then.
This girl has grown up so lovely... So, do you want to come with me, now?"
So-jin (Park Joo-hee) has long stood in vehement opposition to her mother's wish for her to follow in her footsteps and become a Shaman; instead craving normality far removed from her current marginalised existence. Though utterly devastated by her mother's (Park So-yeon) subsequent, sudden and unexpected death, So-jin decides the time has finally come to catch a train to Seoul and seek out the ordinary live she craves but before she can do so she is approached by a man (Jung Hi-te) demanding she tell him where his missing son is. When So-jin explains that she knows nothing of the man's child, he becomes agitated, belligerent and violent causing our heroine to seek refuge in a rundown building nearby; a warehouse inhabited by a young male (Kwon Yul) who promptly imprisons her, repeatedly insists her name is Yeon-ju and tries to force her to eat homemade chocolates into which he has dripped his own blood.
Frightened, out of options and with no other means of escape, So-jin eventually accedes to his demand - on the condition he lets her go - but on biting into the confectionery she finds herself instantly and inexplicably transported to a library/study hall; the same young man smiling by her side.
Question is, is So-jin in the midst of a dream; the middle of a nightmare; or has she begun a journey of an entirely different kind?...
Traditionalism, spirituality and religion have long played a significant thematic role in Korean cinema: Inherently and inextricably linked to the changes Korea itself has seen since its post-War struggles of the 50s and 60s to find and indeed understand its own independent identity, these themes and ideas have over the years gradually morphed from esoteric Golden Age's critiques of traditional values increasingly crushed under the weight of modernisation and religion-based laments of Eastern Buddhism faced with an ever-quickening influx of Western Christian ideologies to become in recent years far more exoteric and thought provoking assays of life, death, faith and destiny. From Lim Woo-seong's sublime 'Scars' detailing one woman's Buddhism-infused journey to understand and come to terms with the very place from which she's so desperate to escape; to Park Chan-wook's traversing of the line leading from life to death (and beyond) in his incredible iPhone short 'Night Fishing'; to Kim Ki-duk's violent and dialogue-free monastic tale of castration, 'Moebius' - to name but three - each and all have come to speak of individuality within a greater scheme and souls shaped by the spiritual and worldly combined.
2014's 'Miss the Train' is (at the time of writing this review, at least) the latest cinematic breaching of such themes and ideas and though many will without question have seen the very likes of its narrative arc on numerous prior occasions, director Lee Kyung-sub and writer Kim Ja-ryung quietly call on just enough 'classic' Korean Cinema archetypes to ensure this gentle film remains eminently engaging, and even noteworthy in more than one instance.
The opening scene of 'Miss the Train' - consisting of a conversation between Joo-hee and her mother in a cinematically beautiful (even idyllic, from a viewer's point of view) countryside area near their home - sets not only the main character and story backgrounds in place but also points to the individual driving forces (personal feelings, opposing viewpoints and dogmatic resolution) that will eventually combine and indeed merge during So-jin's subsequent spiritual journey, whether she likes it or not, and it is almost instantly made clear that So-jin's resolve in refusing the call to shamanism is matched only by her mother's belief it is her preordained destiny to do so; that idea being further underlined in the early stages of the life journey So-jin is soon to undertake.
The conversation itself may initially seem (and is) ever so slightly odd with dialogue that feels somewhat vague but while viewers will quickly (and rightly) conclude the reason for this is the fact So-jin's mother is subtly saying goodbye, that really is just a small part of its importance. For, this short interaction between mother and daughter stands too as the linchpin and, even more, the entire reason behind our heroine's forthcoming mystical travails; the same word-for-word dialogue reappearing at a much later stage and showing its underlying poignancy when taken in its true context.
As for the themes of religion and tradition vs. modernity, these too are highlighted from the outset and while it's never said definitively whether So-jin's determination to leave her current life behind comes from a wish to shun the traditional (old) in favour of the modern (young) surroundings of Seoul or if her religious beliefs are specifically the basis of her unease at the concept of shamanism - So-jin is repeatedly shown to be a Christian rather than Buddhist; her Holy Bible quietly residing in several scenes and she at one point even enters a Christian church to get on her knees and pray. Rather, the points are stated and viewers left to take from each what they will and this decision works well, certainly fitting more comfortably with the film's gentle and understated nature than would any overt and/or contrived thematic 'preaching'.
In fact, for those wishing to look further between the lines for thematic possibilities there is a near plethora of opportunities to do so throughout 'Miss the Train' - from So-jin's current psychological imprisonment as a result of the pressures placed on her to become a Shaman and her inability to escape, becoming physical imprisonment when she enters the warehouse; to the father of the missing child exacting violence upon her every time her faith (bible, church, even swapping traditional robes for modern) comes into play; to the fact that the shamanism she has felt has been keeping her from experiencing life is the very thing that transports her to the library with the young man, in essence to exactly the kind of life she has been craving for so long - but whether you feel the need to delve beneath the narrative to that kind of depth, and what your assertions will become if you do, is up to each individual viewer ultimately to answer for themselves.
As the main narrative arc of 'Miss the Train' unfolds, there are a number of tiny pointers to forthcoming events and indeed the story's culmination - whether it be a brief visual of a character looking markedly different to their appearance just a few seconds earlier; or a deliberate choice of specific words in dialogue; etc - but here too these are ever so quietly placed as to never impede the flow of the story. Of course, it could be said that they perhaps edge towards giving the game away in advance, as it were, but to my mind most Korean film fans will be fairly aware of where things are heading, in any case. And before you start asking if that statement is a criticism on my part, let me state categorically that it's not, for in this often surreal story through characters' hopes, dreams, loves, losses and destinies, familiarity serves as a strength, even warmth, and in a film such as this the beauty and engagement of the journey itself easily takes precedence over any flagged revelation leading to, or at, its destination.
Finally (and before this review becomes so long it turns into an essay), while all of the above easily adds up to ensuring that 'Miss the Train' is eminently watchable from start to finish, for me personally the highlight overall is the way in which director Lee Kyung-sub uses genre merging to give the film a consistently 'classic Korean Cinema' feel - beginning as a seemingly standard drama; morphing briefly into road movie territory (in a way akin to films such as 'The Trip', which also stars Park Joo-hee); taking on hard-hitting thriller elements as So-jin is alternately threatened and beaten by the missing boy's father and imprisoned by the young warehouse dweller; and eventually turning into a near perfect Korean romance tale, complete with the genre's inherent references to love, loss and laughter. Of all of these genres and sections, the romance segment is for me by far the strongest and by its very (again classic) nature effortlessly allows the absolutely requisite melodramatic undertone that singlehandedly sets up the film's perfectly poignant conclusion.
However, the real beauty of Miss the Train' is the way in which these various segments fit seamlessly and work flawlessly together and while its many elements and genres are each noteworthy on their own, in some shape or form, this is still a film that ultimately has a sum greater than its individual parts and which is all the more gently and understatedly memorable, for that very reason.
Cast: Park Joo-hee, Kwon Yul, Park So-yeon, Jung Hi-te
Directed by: Lee Kyung-sub
With its gently understated narrative realisation, 'Miss the Train' is at once a spiritual tale of destiny and a dream-like journey through love and loss, in classic Korean Cinema style, and though many will be able to anticipate the endpoint of the main character's story arc with little trouble, in a film such as this the beauty and engagement of the journey itself takes precedence over any revelation at its destination.