What Man-seob doesn’t know, is that his passenger is a foreign reporter attempting to uncover and expose whatever secrets are being kept in the city of Gwangju; a city that has cut-off all phone lines and expelled all reporters in response to its largely student-lead demonstrations against the government. When the two arrive in Gwangju, they discover the city to be on complete military lock-down and in a situation far worse than either of them could have imagined…
In May of 1980, the citizens of Gwangju city rose up against the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan, an Army General who seized power after a military led coup d’état that subsequently declared martial law over the entire nation of South Korea. What became known as the Gwangju Uprising, was a primarily student-led series of large demonstrations held in response to the military slaying of several student protesters. The events that took place over the course of a little more than a week saw to the closing of many universities and major restrictions placed on the press, and ultimately became one of Korea’s most bloody and painful post war incidents.
Song Kang-ho plays the lead character and taxi driver, Man-seob, based on a real taxi driver who helped a German reporter capture and report to the world the disturbing events that were taking place in the city of Gwangju. One can always count on Song Kang-ho to deliver an excellent performance and A Taxi Driver sees him delivering one of his most memorable performances to date. The character of Man-seob brings out his more playful and quirky characteristics that reminded me of his career’s earlier characters in The Foul King (2000) and The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), whose quirk and clumsiness brought levels of charm that can rarely be seen in other actors and is part of what makes Song Kang-ho so entertaining to watch.
Initially reluctant, Man-seob begins to accept his role in the reporting of Gwangju and the responsibility he feels for keeping his passenger safe to ultimately get the story out sees him transform into a more responsible and courageous driver that not only helps in his maturation of becoming a better man and father, but also as a major contribution to his fellow countrymen and the future of his nation. This transformation allows Song Kang-ho to perfectly balance that fun side with heavier dramatic moments that he is also more than capable of (The Throne, 2015) resulting in a true showcase for one of the best actors in the game.
A taxi driver’s counterpart is his or her fare, and it couldn’t have been an easy task to find the right foreign actor who could really hold his own alongside Song Kang-ho. Luckily, A Taxi Driver found the incredibly capable Thomas Kretschmann to play the German reporter, Peter, who bravely attempts to bypass the heavy censorship and restrictions being placed on reporters. Thomas Kretschmann himself believes the part of Peter was perfect for him due to his experience acting in many different multi-lingual productions. Based on a history of notoriously bad or just awkward performances by non-Korean actors in Korean movies, you can put your reservations aside as Kretschmann delivers a surprisingly competent and convincing performance.
The supporting cast also features the versatile and talented Yu Hae-jin (Confidential Assignment, 2017; The Classified File, 2015), as a local taxi driver in Gwangju that opens up his home and assists the two men in accomplishing their mission. Without spoiling (or confusing) too much, he and other local taxi drivers play an important role and participate in a dramatic and moving climax reminiscent of Spielberg’s E.T.
Also, the actor Ryu Jun-yeol plays a local Gwangju student named Jae-sik and acts as an English translator for Peter. His youthful spirit combined with a sense of sacrificial desperation to assist Peter and Man-seob help in getting the men to grasp the magnitude of their situation and realize the sense of urgency and responsibility they must undertake that drive their character motivations through to the end.
When the two men arrive in Gwangju, they discover the city to be on complete lock-down after a series of deadly student demonstrations against the oppressive government. Under strict government control, the city has turned into a pseudo war zone as the demonstrations become increasingly violent. The clashes between the protesters and the police/military forces are handled well by director Jang Hoon, whose experience from his work on films like The Front Line (2011) and Rough Cut (2008) helped to bring a heightened sense of realism along with its own artistic style to the several action set pieces.
A Taxi Driver really is the whole package when it comes to going to the movies. There is plenty of entertainment to be found in the banter between Man-seob and Peter through their attempts at communication as well as in the set up of Man-seob’s character as we see him struggling to be a single father and his always-trying-to-save-a-dollar attitude as he gets repairs for his cab. The drama is also superb and doesn’t get taken too far as some Korean films can tend to do.
Being based on a true story, A Taxi Driver does not only an incredible job recreating the look and feel of 1980’s Korea, but there is an important message and something to be learned about here as well. The different conflicts between authoritarian regimes and a population demanding democracy is a struggle that continues to this day in various parts of the world. When up against incredible odds, it is easy to feel helpless or simply ignore the situation while waiting for some kind of savior. So with all the superheros dominating our cinemas and culture these days, A Taxi Driver is a fresh story of blue-collar heroism and a reminder of the difference that just one person can make.
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