South Korea’s recent past offers a future glimpse both frightening and hopeful.
Song Kang-ho is an international treasure, and while his filmography is filled with titles that run the gamut from playful to genre-oriented to the deadly serious he delivers the same quality performance regardless of the film’s label. His latest is no exception as he finds the humanity and heart within an exasperated every man and helps turn a very good film into a great one.
South Korea, 1980, and a presidential assassination has been followed up by a military coup. Martial law is in effect, dissent is outlawed, and universities have been temporarily closed. Kim Man-seob (Song) has little time for the protests and sees them as nothing more than the whining of an unpatriotic youth — when we first meet him he’s mumbling in the taxi he drives for a living about the traffic nuisance they’ve become and how they should move to Saudi Arabia to learn to love their homeland. His priority is making enough money to pay the rent and provide for his daughter, and he seizes an opportunity when a Westerner arrives in need of a ride to the neighboring town of Gwangju where student unrest has been focused.
Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) is a German reporter hoping to cover the government’s crackdown on democracy, and after Kim steals the driving job from a pre-arranged cabbie — leaving him unaware of what he’s getting into and with a hefty language barrier — the pair leave Seoul behind. What they find is a town under siege by military and secret police who under the protection of a media blackout are arresting, beating, and murdering protesters. The 48 hours that follow challenge Kim’s beliefs and loyalties as his eyes are opened to the world beyond his taxi.
A Taxi Driver reunites Song with director Jang Hun (Secret Reunion), and the pair once again deliver a winner. This time around they tackle a historical event rather than a purely speculative one, but even with its basis in reality their latest still manages plenty of dramatic thrills and warm laughs. At its core though is a film about the need for people to stand up to oppression, no matter the cost.
The journey Kim takes is far more than just one of geography and mileage as he shifts from caring solely about his daughter into caring about the world she’ll inherit. He’s no “movie hero” though who turns instantly into a far better man — he struggles with what he’s seeing and doing even as the horror unfolds before him. He tells his daughter that life is unfair, he asks the protesters what difference they can possibly hope to make, and in the film’s most powerful scene he asks himself through tears “How can I just watch?” Song is terrific throughout, but this scene secures his place among the greats.
Jang takes some liberties with the true story — the Gwangju uprising is sadly real, and both the taxi driver and the reporter shared this experience — by adding suspenseful, action-oriented sequences. A car chase through smoky, orange fire-lit streets raises the film’s tension but most likely didn’t quite happen so dramatically. These embellishments don’t tarnish the characters, drama, or weight of the film though and instead hopefully work to get more people to watch.
A Taxi Driver is set in the relatively recent past, but its messages and themes remain every bit as relevant in today’s world. “There aren’t enough coffins in Gwangju,” says a character as the bodies of murdered college students and other protesters line the hospital’s hallways. America at least has that problem solved.
Follow our Fantasia 2017 reviews and coverage.