"If you can't come to visit because of a man, it's acceptable.
How could I not be happy about that after seeing my daughter single for years?
Just show up with a man, I don't care if he has kids or whatever."
Train driver Man-soo (Kim Kang-woo) walks slowly and dejectedly through a train station, the weight of the world clearly weighing heavily on his shoulders. Neither talking to nor even making eye contact with anyone, he boards a northern bound train (as a passenger), takes a seat and waits for the train to depart.
Meanwhile, Han-na (Son Tae-yeong) stands at the next platform wheeling a small suitcase and looking rather lost. On realising that the train behind her (the train that Man-soo is on) is about to close its doors and leave, she hurriedly approaches and boards the same carriage as him.
While these two strangers on a train have no reason whatsoever to notice each other (and with both being so wrapped up in their own thoughts and pain, even less of a reason to care), when they eventually find that they are the only remaining passengers stranded at the last stop on the line near the border with North Korea, they slowly come to the realisation that if they are to find a way back to Seoul, they'll each have to enter the other's heartbroken world...
Pain and suffering... Love and heartbreak... Guilt and blame...
While you'd be forgiven for (understandably) assuming that the combination of all of the above feelings and emotions within a story of two largely broken individuals whose paths are destined to ultimately cross, is likely to herald a contrived and forced, predictable and cliché-ridden romantic melodrama (and though their appearance together does indeed provide all the required ingredients for exactly that), director Park Heung-shik introduces each element so naturally and with such quiet gentleness in The Railroad that far from appearing clichéd, they instead feel both necessary and, in fact, vital to altogether worthy proceedings - each adding to the believability and poignancy of the main character arcs as well as helping to raise the level of viewer empathy, in the process.
On first being introduced to Man-soo and Han-na, just how closed they are as people isn't instantly apparent, but as their individual back stories ever so gradually unfold (their journeys through life shown in flashback, juxtaposed with their present day journeys on the train), we are deftly given the opportunity to contrast the people they once were with the people they have subsequently become and, piece by piece, the reason they are each on the train begins to become painfully clear.
The Railroad is, at its core, a very simple story but is not, in any respect whatsoever, slight and, in fact, hardly a single narrative event taking place is ultimately as straightforward as it initially appears. From the main characters' inner qualms about the careers they are outwardly passionate about, to their protestations against the wishes of their respective parents for them to find suitable partners, get married and settle down into lives deemed respectable by society (while inwardly wanting exactly that), the faces they show to those around them routinely hide a multitude of thoughts and feelings, and while these couldn't initially be described as lies per se, both Man-soo and Han-na are, at the very least, shown to be lying by omission in their determination to keep a part of themselves veiled from the outside world.
The more painful the things they feel they must hide become, the more they shut themselves off (and the less they share), and increasingly it could be said that they lie not only to others but also ultimately to themselves.
By the time they eventually meet, they have become such closed individuals that it's almost easier for them to lie to each other than to tell the truth, and the question becomes whether either of them can manage to get past the other's emotional walls and find the real person cowering inside.
Director Park Heung-shik invests a huge amount of effort in incrementally unveiling the back stories of the main characters in The Railroad, but while this may somewhat frustrate those who prefer fast paced stories containing repeated overt 'events', those with an appreciation of character depth within beautifully written, nuanced and understated narratives will not be in any way disappointed. With such a measured build of story and tension, when the characters are finally brought face-to-face with the painful moments that will ultimately change their lives, we, as audience members, are hit equally hard - like a bolt from the blue - and so invested in the characters have we become by that stage that we almost cannot fail to relate to and understand exactly what they are going through.
As such, we follow Man-soo and Han-na willingly, and without question, to the conclusion of their heartbreaking character arcs and are ultimately rewarded with a hopeful and optimistic end to this grippingly poignant tale.
As if all of the above wasn't enough, The Railroad also references themes relating to the pressures placed on individuals by family and friends as a result of social perceptions and ideals, as well as critiquing the working environment and its sometimes overly demanding requirements, but even here the underlying commentaries are depictions rather than lectures, thankfully shown without unnecessary exposition.
All in all, The Railroad has a great deal to say and though it rarely feels the need to raise its voice, it demands to be listened to, nonetheless.
The Railroad really belongs to Kim Kang-woo and Son Tae-yeong, with both of their character portrayals being as gently nuanced as the narrative itself, thereby raising the already high level of proceedings even further throughout. The two actors have a noticeable chemistry allowing them to play off even the tiniest glances and facial expressions so prevalent in both of their performances.
The rest of the cast play largely supporting roles but all of them perform admirably.
Kim Kang-woo, Son Tae-yeong, Baek Jong-hak, Cha Seo-won
Director: Park Heung-shik
A heartbroken train journey in the present juxtaposed with a poignant life journey in the past, The Railroad is a beautifully nuanced and understated tale that, ultimately, speaks of hope.