×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘A Taxi Driver’

An entertaining journey into a tragic and violent chapter of Korean modern history.

Director:
Jang Hoon
With:
Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Ryoo Yun-ryul, Oh Dal-su. (Korean, English, German dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6878038/

Revisiting the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, a landmark historical event in South Korea’s march towards democracy, director Jang Hoon brings a sappy, feel-good touch to a tragic subject by focusing on the bond between a German reporter (Thomas Kretschmann) and the taxi driver (Song Kang-ho) who helped him get the news out to the world.

Jang, who’s established himself as a hit-maker with features like “Secret Reunion” (also starring Song) and “The Front Line,” again worked B.O. miracles, earning the third highest domestic opening score of all time with “A Taxi Driver.” While the film clearly taps into the national zeitgeist, buoyed by a sweeping show of people’s power that ousted the president, international audiences should also appreciate the actors’ feisty turns. (It opened in the U.S. on Aug. 11.)

“A Taxi Driver” is the first major production to tackle the Gwangju Uprising head-on since the 2007 blockbuster “May 18.” Having less pretensions to epic grandeur than that film, it instead gains credibility from being based on a true story, and closing footage of the German reporter returning to the democratized country in 2003 certainly adds historical heft.

The script by Uhm Yoo-na and Jo Seul-ye has drastically simplified the political context that triggered the uprising, but this in turn helps foreign viewers grasp the plot more easily than denser, more intellectual probings of the subject in such films as Im Sang-soo’s “The Old Garden” or Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy.” Opening titles explain how the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee sparked hopes of democracy among the younger generation, though the power vacuum was soon filled by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who declared martial law in a 1980 coup. In Gwangju, protest quickly spilled out of universities and engulfed the southwestern city.

Despite the government’s attempts at keeping foreign press in the dark, Juergen Hinspeter (Kretschmann), correspondent for a German broadcast channel, gets wind of the unrest brewing in South Korea. From his base in Tokyo, he flies to Seoul where his contact helps him book a taxi to drive him south to the beleaguered city. When the protagonist (Song) whose real name is never revealed in the film, overhears that a foreigner is forking out about $900 for the fare, the cash-strapped single father cunningly steals the job from the intended driver.

They arrive on May 19, a day after the uprising broke out, to find the city completely sealed off by the army, although the two still manage to bluff their way pass blockades. Initially, they come across a group of students whose youthful innocence is expressed by the way they sing and dance like revelers at a Woodstock concert, but eventually wind up at a hospital where the casualties provide raw evidence of the bloody crackdown.

The protagonist becomes embroiled in a squabble with local taxi drivers, who scoff at his mercenary attitude. Jang makes good-humored fun of biases between Seoul citizens and natives of the Jeolla district, where the film takes place, but later demonstrates how humanist values transcend regional differences. Although the driver initially displays cowardice in the face of conflict, his personal struggle is rendered agonizing enough by Song to give full force to a climactic U-turn.

Apart from re-creating one incident in which paratroopers tried to wipe out a whole crowd in front of a broadcast station, the film eschews the kind of bombastic, effects-heavy setpieces that characterized “May 18.” Instead, it depicts the regime’s brutal repression implicitly through its blatant attack on press freedom and shameless distortion of the truth. This in turn accentuates Hinzpeter’s role in raising international awareness for their crimes.

According to historical records, on May 20, hundreds of taxis mobilized themselves in a parade to support marching citizens and rescue the injured. Hailed as “drivers of democracy,” many lost their lives. Since only a few taxis are deployed in any given scene, the film hasn’t re-created an adequate sense of the scope of their heroism. However, the power of solidarity is conveyed in a late car-chase sequence that’s choreographed to rousing effect. (The film looks polished overall, its mood buoyed by a playful, jazzy score.)

Although the film’s portrayal of its main characters has recognizable precedents, the two lead actors calibrate their mutual respect and co-dependency to engaging effect, as the escalating violence and peril heighten their sense of personal mission. Echoing the role of American correspondent Sydney Schanberg in “The Killing Fields,” Hinzpeter arrives in Korea as an opportunistic newshound rather than a champion of justice. Kretschmann plays him initially with an unlikable cold efficiency, treating his driver and other Koreans as mere tools or fodder for his article. Impressively, there are no overnight changes in his persona. Rather, the actor maintains a certain stiff composure even as his passion and affection for the democracy fighters visibly grows. The final parting is genuinely touching as the two men now relate to each other as equals.

Audiences familiar with Korean cinema will instantly recognize a resemblance between the character of the taxi driver and Song’s role in “The Attorney,” in which he transforms from a mercenary tax solicitor to an altruistic human-rights lawyer. And yet Song makes a subtle distinction between the two characters, as his comic charm betrays the tough-talking character’s soft heart, as when he keeps letting passengers in need short-change him.

Film Review: 'A Taxi Driver'

Reviewed at Korean Film Council screening room, Aug. 4, 2017. Running time: 137 MIN. (Original title: "Taeksi Woonjeonsa”)

Production: (S. Korea) A Showbox Mediaplex (in South Korea), Well Go USA (in U.S.) release of The Lamp production in association with Ace Investment & Finance, Leo Partners Investment, Signature Film, Interpark, Huayi Investment, Huayi Brothers Korea, Korea Broadcast Advertising Corp. (International sales: Showbox) Producer: Park Un-kyoung. Executive producer: You Jeong-hun. Co-executive producers: Hwang Young-won, Kim Song-soo, Han Suk-woo, Park Jin-young, Oh Seung-wook, Ji Seung-bum, Kwak Sung-moon. Co-producer: Choi Ki-sua.

Crew: Director: Jang Hoon. Screenplay: Ho Kei-ping. Camera (color, widescreen): Ko Nak-sun. Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum. Music: Cho Young-wook.

With: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Ryoo Yun-ryul, Oh Dal-su. (Korean, English, German dialogue)

More Film

  • 'Shazam!' Review: Zachary Levi is Pure

    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: 'Us' on Track for Second-Highest Debut of 2019 With $67 Million

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is on its way to scaring up one of the biggest debuts of 2019, with an estimated $67 million from 3,741 North American locations. Should estimates hold, “Us” will be able to claim several milestones: the highest debut for an original horror movie (the biggest launch for any horror pic goes to [...]

  • NF_D_JGN-D6-2160.cr2

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content