Review: 'A Taxi Driver' (택시운전사) Takes Us Back to a 1980 South Korean Massacre
Co-Written by Sylvia Lee and Katherine O'Chee
In a time of cynicism and fake news, A Taxi Driver is on par with films like Spotlight in teaching us about the continual importance of courageous journalism and democratic institutions in uncovering ‘truths’.
The historical action-drama A Taxi Driver, directed by Jang Hoon casts Song Kang-ho (Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst) as Kim Man-seob, a hapless yet amusing taxi driver who steals another driver’s client for 100,000 won ($120 AUD). What he doesn’t realise is his client is Jürgen Hinzpeter, played by Thomas Kretschman (Stalingrad, The Pianist, Downfall), a stoic undercover German reporter who hopes to expose the human rights abuses of South Korea under martial law.
Jang's film follows the true experiences of Jürgen Hinzpeter, a reporter who risked his life to cover the Gwangju Uprising, in which peaceful student protests, later joined by ordinary citizens, were brutally suppressed by the military dictatorship. The rest of South Korea believed in the government’s propaganda: that the protestors were “rioters and gangsters,” “commie” traitors who plotted to disrupt the peace. It took more than a few brave and determined souls to smuggle the truth out to the world, which eventually catalysed South Korea’s democratisation.
The film’s depiction of non-violent protests gone wrong recalls images that are not unfamiliar: we only have to look back to photographs of the Black Lives Matter movement to remember the clash of armed forces against civilians banding together to fight for their rights. But A Taxi Driver demands that we step outside the comforts and privilege of being a detached observer. We are thrown into the heart of the Gwangju demonstrations, with only Hinzpeter’s camera lens and Kim’s eyes to guide us from streets filled with violent rioting to a hospital overwhelmed by the wounded.
Jang masters the perfect balance between suspense and comedy, delicately juxtaposing fear, chaos, violence with light humour amidst it all. Moments of comedic relief are inserted into the film with intention and clarity amidst the drama. Audiences in the cinema - including us - roared with laughter one minute and were sniffling the next.
While A Taxi Driver is about tragedy and injustice, it is also about the resilience of the human spirit. Take its true-to-life characters, who are played brilliantly by a talented ensemble. Leading stars Song Kang-ho and Thomas Kretschmann give outstanding, emotional performances as two men who find common ground despite language and cultural barriers. Ryu Jun-yeol shines as Gu Jae-sik, a naive student-revolutionary who aspires for idol-dom. Yoo Hae-jin also warms our hearts as kindly Gwangju taxi driver Hwang Tae-sool, who is determined to do what is right.
Go Nak-seon’s dynamic cinematography brings the film’s realism to life, then bulks it up with emotion. Go favours minimalist, yet powerful close-ups and slow-motion shots to drive the story, littering visual mementos throughout the film. A Taxi Driver reminds us not to forget those who died for a cause bigger than themselves. Everyday heroes, we learn, also come from the most unexpected of places; sometimes, even a soldier whom you consider your enemy becomes an ally. At times, this leads to predictable plot developments and tinges of melodrama, but all in the vein of acknowledging the bravery - and optimism - of ordinary people under extraordinarily dark circumstances.
That said, A Taxi Driver is a strong release featured in this year’s Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). It’s no surprise that it is the recipient of several awards, including a Blue Dragon Film Award and Grand Bell Award. The film succeeds at lingering in your mind long after the credits roll. For anyone who feels politically disengaged or has lost faith in humanity, who enjoys history or films that both uplift you and make you cry, this one is a must-see.
A Taxi Driver was viewed at KOFFIA, the Korean Film Festival in Australia 2018. The festival runs until August 18 and you still have time to catch the festival. Find all the information you need at the KOFFIA official website