‘A Taxi Driver’: Film Review

A richly imagined tribute to a working-class hero.

In spring 1980, a South Korean cabbie awakens to the brutalities of his country’s government in a drama based on actual events.

Many Western filmgoers are probably unfamiliar with the Gwangju Uprising, a cataclysmic event in South Korea’s struggle for democracy. The fourth feature by director Jang Hoon brings the May 1980 revolt and its violent suppression to vivid life through the eyes of one of the rebellion’s heroes, the still-unidentified cabbie who made it possible for a German journalist to broadcast evidence of the massacre to the world. With a robust and affecting lead performance by Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, Secret Sunshine), the film is primed to connect with audiences in North America as well as on home turf.

Song’s character, Kim, is, at first, an accidental participant in the shattering events. A Seoul widower struggling to make ends meet — and not averse to asking his landlord for a loan — he snatches a lucrative fare to Gwangju, more than 150 miles south of the capital, from another driver, with no clue to the danger that lies ahead. Martial law has been declared nationwide, but with university students taking to the streets with particular fervor in the southern city, Gwangju is under retaliatory military siege, cordoned off and with its phone lines cut.

As the concisely handled setup makes clear, Kim’s passenger, Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann), is a reporter for the German pubcaster who has made a beeline from Tokyo upon hearing of troubles in the neighboring country. With neither man fluent in the other’s language, the two haggle over whether to proceed once roadblocks pop up to hinder their way to Gwangju. A sense of professional pride, in addition to the lure of the much-needed money, pushes Kim to complete the trip via backroads. They find a city under lockdown, with local newsrooms shuttered and TV reports labeling the pro-democracy demonstrators “radicals and gangsters.” Then they stumble into a bloodbath. As one traumatized witness puts it, “There aren’t enough coffins in Gwangju.”

Aiming his video camera at the clashes between civilians and heavily armed troops, first from a rooftop vantage point and then in the midst of the pandemonium, the journo soon becomes targeted by the authorities. Two locals prove indispensable to him and Kim: a genial aspiring musician (Ryu Jun-yeol), whom Hinzpeter enlists as a translator, and a generous-spirited Gwangju cabbie (Yoo Hai-jin).

Jang, whose previous feature, the 2011 war story The Front Line, was South Korea's submission to the Academy Awards’ foreign-language category, choreographs strong action sequences outside Gwangju as well as within its periphery. Dynamically captured by DP Go Rak-sun, these include a tense checkpoint encounter and a climactic mountain-road chase whose metal-on-metal violence is all the more shocking for the pastoral backdrop. The use of slo-mo amounts to the film’s rare instances of unnecessary emphasis; far more effective is Kim’s tearful, compassionate response to the murderous scenes unfolding around him.

The name of South Korea’s president at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, is never uttered in the film, which skirts the issue of American support for the dictator. But though Eom Yu-na’s screenplay sometimes states the obvious — “Things are getting bad here,” a character declares well past the point of outright catastrophe — it’s a deftly imagined slice of history, one that aims not for a sweeping historical perspective but a portrait of personal transformation.

Having urged his 11-year-old daughter to avoid skirmishes with a neighbor, Kim finds himself heading into the fray. Whether deluded, naïve or uninformed, he begins the journey as an apolitical patriot who has no sympathy for the protesters and can’t believe the army would hurt people. That makes the next 24 hours not just eye-opening but heartbreaking for him, and Song’s superb and stirring performance makes his dawning consciousness and courage powerfully felt.

Jang sets the stage for that transformation with the almost farcical comic energy of the film’s opening scenes. Emerging from a tunnel in his apple-green cab, Kim sings along to an effervescent radio pop tune. (Elsewhere, Cho Young-wuk’s score is well used.) Kim expertly and aggressively maneuvers his way around the snarl of traffic in downtown Seoul created by protesting students. Soon, sidestepping involvement won’t be so easy for him. But whether his humility is cultural, individual or a combination thereof, he’ll never step into the spotlight to take credit for his role.

As the driven reporter who becomes Kim’s unlikely comrade, however briefly, Kretschmann delivers a sympathetic, lived-in performance. If it appears that he might be overplaying his character’s emotions in the film’s late going, a postscript clip of the real Hinzpeter, filmed months before his January 2016 death, shows that the actor and the film get it just right.

In unexpected and wonderfully satisfying ways, A Taxi Driver taps into the symbiotic relationship between foreign correspondents and locals, particularly in times of crisis. Though filled with moments of taut suspense and quick action, Jang’s film is also rewardingly unrushed, a quality exemplified by an extended sequence in which the visitors from Seoul share a meal and an evening with Yoo’s Gwangju cabbie and his family. At once sincere, awkward and silly, their respite of calm and laughter amid the terror beautifully underscores the way ordinary lives are caught in the crosshairs of history.

Production company: The Lamp
Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yoo Hai-jin, Ryu Jun-yeol
Director: Jang Hoon
Screenwriter: Eom Yu-na
Producer: Park Un-kyoung
Executive producer: You Jeong-hun
Director of photography: Go Rak-sun
Production designers: Cho Hwa-sung, Jeong Yi-jin
Costume designers: Jo Sang-gyeong, Choi Yoon-sun
Editors: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom
Composer: Cho Young-wuk

137 minutes