Taking part in Thoughts All Sorts “Non English” Language Blogathon I decided to continue my Korean cinema viewing and watch Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver.
A Taxi Driver is a 1980’s set Korean drama telling the story of the Gwangju Democratization Movement through the eyes of a taxi driver who unwittingly got involved. Directed by Jang Hoon and starring the ever impressive Song Kang-ho alongside Thomas Kretschmann this takes on a very serious topic, one that I didn’t know anything about beforehand, and makes a compelling film out of it.
Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) is a Seoul taxi driver, happily going about his life driving his passengers around this city, maybe struggling a bit to make ends meet as he is a widower and has a young daughter to look after as well. An overheard conversation at work about a big fare, that would relieve him of his money problems, leads Kim to steal the foreign reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) from his colleague, and they begin their journey together to Gwangju city. Unknown to Kim, but the real reason that Hinzpeter is here, is that Gwangju has been cut off from the rest of the country with nobody and no information getting in or out as there has been civil unrest due to tensions with the government and in retaliation martial law has been implemented over the city.
Kim in this early section of the film is comedic and lighthearted in everything that he does and this continues throughout the film until we reach the last third. Hinzpeter, on the other hand, is coarse and abrasive and entirely focussed on getting this story on the Gwangju Uprising but also getting the scoop would be a huge boost to his career. So from the off, they are an odd couple, an ill fitting pair and it shows. It probably doesn’t help that Kim is so naive about what is going down, even when he’s in the midst of the crowds and action he seems so blissfully unaware.
Once they manage to weasel their way into the city their understanding of the situation begins to change and their attitudes, particularly Kim’s, change to become much more sombre as the realisation of the events unfolding take hold. Kim’s original thought that this is just another student riot, like those occurring in Seoul, is slowly taken away as the seriousness hits home. Not only is the situation dire and the treatment of the civilians extremely harsh but due to the censorship in place and the propaganda that the government is spreading means that no-one else knows what is actually happening, even in the next city.
Kim is naive and unwittingly has gotten involved in this serious moment in South Koreas recent past, the enormity of the situation dawns on him only after he tries to leave and hears the stories being talked about, the false stories and government propaganda, in the nearby town. He knows that he can’t just leave them as is, something needs to change, something needs to be done and he has the means to do it by helping the foreign journalist. Kim has never been one to push against the tide, content with following along with popular consensus so being at the forefront of this push back against the authorities is new for him and it takes a lot for him to change this behaviour.
The response and heroics of the taxi drivers as we worked our way towards the ending felt slightly over the top. I am in no way belittling their involvement in this story but it felt somewhat out of place with respect to the tone that A Taxi Driver had built towards. And even more so as afterwards it is all geared towards the impact of this story and how it will change things in South Korea. And as if that wasn’t enough, on top of that it is made all the more emotional and hard hitting by linking it to the actual Jurgen Hinzpeter in the aftermath of his story and his search for his taxi driving compadre who so ably, in the end, assisted him.
The tone in A Taxi Driver changes as the situation does, mirroring Kim’s dawning realisation of the severity of what is going on around him. As things escalate from beatings to shootings, civilians being indiscriminately shot, the shock factor takes over and this scene in particular left me speechless. The slow gradient from happy-go-lucky and lighthearted entertainment, to the realisation of unrest and uprising, through to the demoralisation and shock of a government killing its own people for trying to retain a sense of normality and to have their rights respected, I thought it was superbly done and wonderfully paced.
The acting from the two main actors is really top-notch throughout but they are ably supported by a variety of cast members. That being said I don’t think that I have seen a film with Song Kang-ho in it where he hasn’t just been amazing, and this is no different. Ably managing the adjustment in seriousness as we progress and still managing to get the emotional scenes across even after appearing clown-like from the opening scenes. This film, though, is mostly about you getting to know and understand the two guys who are now forever interlinked in the release of this story and the changing of the landscape of South Korea for the future, for the better.
A Taxi Driver is equal parts heartwarming but also utterly shocking, a sense of pride but sadness at the same time. Director Jang Hoon hasn’t done many films but in this he has made an truly superb film. Bravo!