A Taxi Driver (Taeksi woonjunsa)
Korea (2017) Dir. Jang Hun
So, you thought North Korea was the half of the bifurcated country with no respect for democracy and a state controlled media to twist the facts when things didn’t go their way? Then this dramatised account of the infamous Gwangju Uprising in May 1980 which took place in South Korea will be a real eye-opener for you.
Ahead of a rigged election a few months later, President Chun Doo-hwan ascended to office via a military coup in December 1979. With the country under martial law, students in the city of Gwangju protested against this affront to democracy. In response, Chun dispatched the army who massacred over 600 protesters, whilst the media only reported the deaths of the soldiers “by hardcore Communist rioters”.
Meanwhile in Seoul, Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is a widowed taxi driver struggling to support himself and his 11 year-old daughter Eun-jeong (Yoo Eun-mi). When a German TV news reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) arrives in Seoul from Japan, he is looking for someone to drive him to Gwangju. Man-seob takes the 100,000 won fair under false pretences but both are unaware of the horrors that await them in Gwangju.
Hopefully by now you would have recognised that this film has nothing to do with Martin Scorsese’s revered 1976 classic Taxi Driver, just in case the similarities of the title suggested such a thing. Jang Hun has effectively played upon the modesty of the real life cabbie Kim Sa-Bok upon whom Man-seob was based – a man who stayed out of the public eye until his son revealed his father’s identity in the wake of the film’s success.
Unfortunately, Kim Sa-Bok would not see himself immortalised on the big screen by one of Korea’s finest actors working today, as he died in 1984. Equally sad is the fact Jürgen Hinzpeter (who was real) didn’t get to see Kim again before his death in 2016, as noted in an emotional and gut wrenching clip of Hinzpeter lamenting as much, clearly unaware of Kim’s death, that runs just prior to the closing credits.
It is not difficult to see how the two formed the bond that they did if the story related here is accurate as they (almost) literally went through hell to get the shocking and shaming footage of the student massacre on film and smuggled out of the country where it was later broadcast worldwide. The effect was enough to bring about change in Korean politics and a return to democracy, albeit many years later.
One could argue the central story of political upheaval is minimised but other films have been made on the subject; Hun is intent to give the credit to those who played a major part in exposing the truth as opposed to the state media lies, bringing about change in the process. Hinzpeter took all the public glory for the footage he shot and shared but without Kim, he never would have got in and out of Gwangju in one piece.
Kim Man-seob is your everyday blue collar worker, trying to do right by his daughter on a meagre income following his wife’s death. Because Eun-jeong is often left to fend for herself or with the neighbours because of his job, Man-seob is considered a deadbeat dad. Overhearing a fellow taxi driver boasting about the lucrative fare he would be getting for driving Hinzpeter to Gwangju, Man-seob gets to the pick-up point first, his pigeon English enough to convince the German he is the pre-booked driver.
In his battered, hideous green taxi – the colour is hilarious as it blends in with the surroundings during the drive through the countryside – Man-seob and Hinzpeter endure an awkward journey, neither aware of what lies ahead of them. A miscommunication sees the duo part, only to reunite at a local hospital with Hinzpeter now flanked by Gu Jae-sik (Ryu Jun-yeol), a protesting student who speaks English.
This trio soon expands to the local Gwangju taxi drivers’ community when they are taken in by kind hearted Hwang Tae-sool (Yoo Hae-jin) after Man-seob’s car breaks down. But with military police and undercover cops patrolling the city and meting out unprovoked violent attacks, tragedy is not far away, whilst the third act takes on an action thriller twist with the city on lockdown and orders to stop a Seoul taxi with a foreign passenger from leaving.
Amazingly, the tone is often light and convivial despite the bleak spectre of oppression as a prevalent force, reminding us the characters in the spotlight are just ordinary folk caught in the middle. Yet, when the film has to get serious it does, the brief spurts of brutal and unjust violence more effective than had it been a sustained focal point. Chun isn’t named or shown in this film, but the effects of his control are showcased enough to delineate the depth of his pernicious and venal tyranny.
Sporting a cast of well known faces (Yoo Hae-jin) and promising up-and-comers (Ryu Jun-yeol), this film however is essentially a two man show with Song Kang-ho and Thomas Kretschmann commanding the attention. Song is such a versatile actor, able to play non-descript average Joes one minute and distinguished military leaders the next. Here he is effortlessly convincing as the former, bringing out the moral, selfless hero from a hard working slob in a canary yellow shirt.
Unlike other foreigners in Asian films, Kretschmann isn’t lumbered with an underwritten character nor directed by Hun with the usual disingenuous nonchalance; Hinzpeter’s role is too important and both actor and director treat it as such, allowing Kretschmann to blend in with his Korean co-stars yet still add a unique gravitas by being European.
By keeping the politics to a minimum, Hun avoids turning A Taxi Driver into a jingoistic rant likely to exclude non-Korean audiences, making it widely relatable. It may be a dramatisation first and foremost but an educational and inspirational one, and a polished piece of filmmaking to boot.