A TAXI DRIVER (2017)
A cabbie becomes the reluctant hero of the 1980s Gwangju Uprising in a heartfelt and impassioned retelling of a remarkable real-life story
While the cinematic version of the revolutionary experience is often focused on the charismatic rebel leader, A Taxi Driver instead pays homage to the humble citizens who make such uprisings possible.
With the perfectly cast Song Kang-ho in the title role, the film takes the real-life German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter’s interactions with driver Kim Sa-bok, who enabled visuals of the Gwangju Uprising to reach a global audience.
The Uprising took place in the city of Gwangju in May 1980 where it is estimated that around 2,000 people were killed by government troops.
Our route into the clashes is Kim Man-seob (Song), a widowed father who works as a taxi driver in Seoul and unintentionally becomes involved in the nation-changing events.
Struggling to pay his rent and feeling increasingly desperate, Man-seob overhears another driver discussing taking a foreign client to Gwangju for 100,000 won. Man-seob intercepts the fare and takes the client, Jürgen “Peter” Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann), a West German journalist who wishes to report on the increasing civil unrest in Gwangju.
Censorship means that foreign reporters are prohibited from entering the country and certainly from reaching the conflict frontline, but with Man-seob's help Peter has a chance to make it.
While Man-seob is our hero, he is a reluctant one and at times is a difficult and self-centered individual. It seems impossible to dislike a Song Kang-ho character, but Man-seob tests this notion at first.
Eventually, Man-seob begins to understand the magnitude of the developments taking place and becomes the reporter’s best hope.
There is a scene in particular – one that deserves its place as one of the finest in Korean film history – which manages to perfectly encapsulate the drama and emotion of events, bought to life by the always superb Song. In this scene, Man-seob must choose between what is right and wrong, with his personal safety in profound danger. This is the moment to stand up, but would he have the courage to grab it?
Korean cinema continues to shock and awe because it has such a rich and dramatic history to draw on for its films. While it is valuable to know the historical importance of the Gwangju Uprising, it is also not completely necessary – the drama largely speaks for itself.
The film follows a similar pattern of many Korean films in that it starts light-hearted and humorous – something Song himself performs in Memories of Murder (2003) and Parasite (2019) – but by the end the stakes are high and the drama impactful.
The wider film is a bag of seemingly opposing themes and emotions – funny and sad, charming yet dark, slow-burning with fast-paced drama. All these square pegs and round holes combine to work somehow.
A film about human relationships in the context of wider revolution, it sees Song at his best, is historically vital and a fine demonstration of the power of such superb emotional dramas.