Film Reviews

A TAXI DRIVER

By • Oct 24th, 2017 •

Share This:

Film Review by Suzanna Turman
One has to wonder about the obtuse choice of title for the new Korean film A TAXI DRIVER.  Did they hope to misleadingly hitch a ride on the distant coattails of Martin Scorsese’s unrelated 1976 milestone film?  Could they possibly have imagined that any confusion could benefit them?  Could the American distributors not explain that choosing some other title, such as “Taxi to the Dark Side”–whoops, no, not that.  Well, then maybe “Seoul Taxi” or “The Ride to Gwangju.”  Even the advertisement features a wildly misleading image of a beaming driver leaning out of his taxi window sporting a big grin, as if this is a feel-good romp.  At any rate, this Seoul taxi takes a ride to Gwangju, a nearby town with an ominous news blackout.

Kim Man-Seob, a conscientious widower trying to stay afloat for the sake of his young daughter, does his best hustling for taxi riders but is still falling behind on his rent, hanging on to his home by the grace of his friendship with his landlord.  He’s a decent guy, ruefully resigned when a frantic expectant father can’t pay the fare, buoying up his daughter’s spirits, happy to have a hearty meal when his landlord friend treats him to lunch.  Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of his precarious finances, and when he overhears a conversation about a foreigner paying generously for a ride to Gwangju, he rushes to edge out the competition.

Veteran German reporter Peter takes his calling very seriously, believing that it’s the mission of a good journalist to seek out dangerous stories that need to be told.  Perhaps that’s why he lists his occupation as “missionary” when he slips into South Korea under the radar, having heard that something suspicious may be going on in Gwangju.  Kim, posing as the cabbie who was arranged for Peter, pretending a non-existent proficiency in English, drives up at the airport, and off they go.  After failing to connect with some cheery small-talk, Kim finds Peter’s impatience and taciturnity off-putting, but when they run into military check-points, Kim starts to realize that this is more than he bargained for.

This is the 1980 uprising of pro-democracy protesters against the military coup and martial law and the subsequent brutal government crack-down.  The city is in lockdown and the streets are deserted, so when a lone truck of young men appears, Peter jumps out of the taxi, camera in hand and, via an English-speaking student, is invited on board.  The students are happy to have a foreign journalist, and when Peter’s presence is announced to a crowd of protesters–largely ordinary, middle-aged residents–he is roundly applauded.  At a nearby hospital, they encounter an overflow of injured and dying protesters, and as the crackdown continues, they see for themselves the paratroopers shooting down citizens.  Kim, unwilling, is inevitably drawn in.  And when the authorities realize that a reporter has slipped through the blockade, the pursuit begins.

This is a familiar episode to Korean audiences, but not necessarily in the rest of the world.  It is certainly a worthwhile subject, and director Jang Hoon (whose 2011 THE FRONTLINE was South Korea’s Oscar candidate for best foreign film) has given it an urgent immediacy.  The story beckons with the light-hearted beginning as the script takes us through the facets of Kim’s world, in his quiet home life, with his cheery optimistic facade versus his private grief and anxiety, and in his quick-moving work hustle.  Everything changes, however, as Kim’s unexpected detour to Gwangju gradually moves him to his own awakening sense of social responsibility, the importance of investigative journalism, the essential courage of the ordinary man.

 

The distinguished Korean actor Song Kang-Ho (seen in SNOW PIERCER) as Kim gives a sensitive, thoroughly rounded performance as a whole man.  In fact, the focus is all on Kim, while the other characters are largely just sketched in.  Even the role of Peter (based on the real-life Jurgen Hinzpeter),  played by notable German actor Thomas Kretschmann (seen in THE PIANIST and DOWNFALL), is underwritten.  It’s not felt as a lack, however; it realistically conveys the haphazard encounters with random people briefly crossing paths in the chaos:  the cheery young man who came to enter a pop music contest but is now committed to the protest (Ryu Jun-Yeol), the worried mother searching frantically for her missing son, the loyal fellow-cabbie who steps up courageously.

 

What starts out as a somewhat jokey good-natured comedy seamlessly evolves into a serious drama, and then into a thriller, with the race to evade the pursuers and smuggle Peter’s footage out to the world.  The setting may be contemporary Korean history, but the underlying themes transcend the specifics.

 

 

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)