Director: Jang Hoon
Writer: Uhm Yoo-Na, Jo Seul-Ye
Cast: Song Kang-Ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yu Hae-Jin, Ryoo Joon-Yeol, Park Hyuk-Kwon, Choi Gwi-Hwa, Um Tae-Goo, Jeon Hye-Jin, Ko Chang-Seok
Running Time: 137 min.
By Paul Bramhall
An interesting element of Korean cinema has always been how much the film industries output reflects the political climate of the time. When the nationalistic Park Geun-hye was elected in 2013, a slew of patriotic themed movies filled the theaters, from the saccharine laced Ode to My Father, to the bombastic The Admiral: Roaring Currents. However by the time she was caught up in a number of controversies, from the handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, to sharing government documents with the daughter of a cult leader, so too the film industry changed its tone to reflect a lack of trust for those in authority. Instead of rousing patriotism, movies like Veteran and Inside Men painted an ugly picture of those in power, and Korean audiences lapped them up.
The controversy Geun-hye got caught up in led to her eventual impeachment in early 2017, which resulted in Moon Jae-in being elected as president. A former student activist and human rights lawyer, Jae-in has seen a Korea which is more self-reflective, and the latest Song Kang-ho vehicle (no pun intended), simply titled A Taxi Driver, is arguably a result of current attitudes. The movie takes place over a couple of days during The Gwangju Massacre (May 18th – 27th 1980), one of the most traumatic events in modern Korean history, and the turning point for the countries eventual return to democracy in the late 80’s.
Before getting into the movie itself, it’s important to give some context in regards to what led to those fateful days. Park Chung-hee (the father of Park Geun-hye) had led Korea as an authoritarian dictatorship since 1963, torturing his opponents and restricting civil liberties. When he was assassinated in 1979, many hoped for a return for democracy, but instead a general by the name of Chun Doo-hwan executed a military coup and seized power himself. Citing fears of North Korea infiltrating the South, Doo-hwan imposed martial law, shutting down universities and any political activity, which included dispatching troops to various cities to enforce curfews and alike. In short, one dictatorship was exchanged for another. In May 1980, a group of pro-democracy students in Gwangju took to the streets to protest the military rule, which led to dire consequences.
Doo-hwan ordered his troops to deal with the protestors using any force necessary, which saw many of them clubbed to death in the street. Outraged by the senseless violence being witnessed, within 2 days a protest of 200 people had become more than 10,000. Gwangju went into lockdown, with the military sealing off anyone coming or going from the city. The news stated that a group of communist sympathisers and gangsters had been causing trouble, which the military were controlling with minimum casualties, while in reality hundreds of pro-democracy protestors were violently murdered. It’s one of the darkest events in recent times, and perhaps not the most likely setting for a mainstream blockbuster, however it’s certainly not the first time for it to be featured on film, with the likes of May 18 and Peppermint Candy also using the traumatic days as a backdrop.
One of the most interesting stories to come out of the Gwangju Massacre, is that of a German journalist stationed in Japan, Jurgen Hinzpeter, who after hearing of the impending strife, smelt a scoop and flew to Korea a few days before the massacre began. Posing as a missionary to enter the country (foreign reporters weren’t allowed in at the time), Hinzpeter convinced a Seoul taxi driver by the name of Kim Sa-bok to take him to Gwangju, with the intention of filming an interview with the protestors. As it turned out, he’d become one of the key people to report the truth behind the Gwangju Massacre, with the footage he took revealing the true nature of how the military were senselessly killing civilians. A Taxi Driver is based on the story of Hinzeter and Sa-bok, using their very real story as a framework to construct a very mainstream blockbuster.
A Taxi Driver is the 4th movie from Kim Ki-duk’s former assistant director Jang Hoon. After making his directorial debut with 2008’s excellent Rough Cut, Hoon would go on to work with Song Kang-ho for his sophomore feature Secret Reunion, in 2010. Here reuniting after 7 years, Kang-ho makes the perfect anchor for what’s easily Hoon’s most commercial production to date. As a down-on-his-luck taxi driver, Kang-ho’s character ticks all the boxes – a wife who died from an unnamed illness, a single father to an 11 year old daughter, behind on his rent, and a landlady who looks down on him due to his profession and financial instability. Basically, he’s the archetypal Korean everyman that’s become so popular over the years, but thankfully with an actor as talented as Kang-ho in the role, as an audience we’re fully invested in his predicaments.
While grabbing lunch in a taxi driver’s eatery, he overhears another driver say their next booking is to take a foreigner to Gwangju for a hefty sum, a sum which would be ideal to clear his rent backlog. Seizing a moment of opportunity, Kang-ho grabs the fare instead, and so an awkward relationship begins between him and his stern faced passenger, played by Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Wanted). Having an English speaking actor in any Asian production is a daunting prospect, as all too often the exchanges can seem stilted, an example perfectly showcased by Han Suk-kyu and John Keogh in The Berlin File. Even Liam Neeson didn’t come away completely untarnished from Operation Chromite, despite having minimum interaction with the Korean cast. Thankfully no such issues exist in A Taxi Driver, and the language barrier that Kang-ho and Kretschmann experience feels perfectly organic, with the pair sharing a natural chemistry with each other.
Despite knowing the traumatic events that Kang-ho and Kretschmann are literally heading towards, Joon deserves credit for still eliciting laughs from their journey to Gwangju, thanks in no small part to Eom Yoo-na’s nuanced script, as the pair try to figure each other out. The fact that both are headed there for self-gratifying reasons also puts an interesting slant on things, with Kang-ho simply wanting the fare so that he can get going back to Seoul, and Kretschmann looking for the all-important scoop. Needless to say, A Taxi Driver sets itself up to cover a broad amount of territory, both in terms of the journey itself, and the tones invoked. Mainstream Korean cinema has a tendency to pour on the melodrama, even in movies billed as comedies (just check out the recent I Can Speak), and with subject matter such as that which is being covered here, gunning for the tear ducts is a given.
However Joon successfully keeps a steady balance throughout, with the expected tonal shifts flowing into one another rather than jarring against each other. The beginning of the massacre itself is handled particularly well, seen through the eyes of Kretschmann, Kang-ho, and a young activist played by Ryu Jun-yeol, the horrors inflicted are played straight and unflinching, making it a harrowing sight to witness. With a 135 minute run time though, towards the end proceedings do begin to feel slightly bloated. A scene which was likely included to make the movie appeal to as wider audience as possible, that features a completely unrealistic car chase between the taxi drivers (led by the always reliable Yoo Hae-jin, fresh from starring in Confidential Assignment) and the military, could arguably have been removed all together.
This is a minor gripe though, and despite its commercial nature, Joon does a remarkably effective job of capturing the essence of how ordinary lives get caught up in historically tragic moments. It’s as refreshing to see a Korean production that doesn’t rely on the Japanese as its villains, as it is to see one that doesn’t shy away from portraying the atrocities that it inflicted upon itself. Setting a movie such as this against the Gwangju Massacre could potentially be construed as insensitive, however Joon provides us with a tale that both respects the truth, while also delivering an engaging character drama through Kang-ho and Kretschmann’s relationship. Like most taxi rides, it may not be perfect, but all in all A Taxi Driver is one fare that’s worth coughing up for. A tip is optional.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10