A Taxi Driver Takes You On An Emotional Ride
With the heavy influence South Korea has on the world today, it's hard to imagine that only up until very recently did they achieve their “cool kid” status. Under all that glitz and glamour, the scars of the past are only just healing. The history behind a country that, quite literally, went from rags to riches is definitely very interesting, and also quite extensive. When you timidly set foot into the Hallyu Wave, Korean history isn’t exactly the first thing you go for; however, the history behind the country has played a huge role in creating and spreading the Hallyu Wave we know today. The great thing, though, is that once you’re in, it pretty much becomes something you get to know about naturally, be it through television, cinema, variety shows...you name it!
I personally think that Korean cinema is the biggest envoy of Korean history. It isn’t something they’re ashamed of: much like a war wound, they carry it proudly and are more than willing to talk about it…which they do. Korean cinema, in particular, is filled with films dedicated to the past that has built the country as it is today as well as critical observations of their society. From Japanese imperialism to unrest within the country, there are many pieces that cover the range. However, there was one particular event in history that I hadn’t seen featured in many films before: the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. Until A Taxi Driver, that is.
Next Stop: Gwangju
Just a quick little backstory: the Gwangju Uprising took place on May 18, 1980 and is arguably one of the most transformative moments in Korean history. Brigadier General Chun Doohwan filled the power vacuum after President Park Chunhee was assassinated. Under his leadership, the military declared martial law (introducing a military government essentially) which led to total outrage. The nation broke out in protest, with Gwangju taking the main role. This obviously did not sit well with Chun Doohwan, who sent military out to the provincial capital to maintain control. This had the complete opposite effect though, igniting the citizens to fight back even harder. What followed was a gruesome month of blatant, indiscriminate violence against the citizens of Gwangju. The worst part of all of this being that due to the absolute control the military had over press and information, no one outside of Gwangju really knew about the atrocities that were actually taking place.
Using this backstory as a canvas, director Jang Hoon brings to life a terrific combination of history and entertainment through A Taxi Driver. The film is based on a fictionalised true story of an unsung hero of the uprising: a taxi driver who may have been named Kim Sabok. During the uprising, German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) travels to Korea when he hears of rumors of political unrest. Upon reaching Seoul he pays a taxi driver to get him to Gwangju. Despite being met with many road barriers, military checkpoints, and detour signs, the taxi driver is able to get him into Gwangju. The role of the taxi driver (Manseob) is played by Song Kangho, a regular law-abiding citizen, whose piled-up rent and daughter push him to swipe up the princely fare from another cab driver. From there on he is dedicated to getting his customer to Gwangju, no matter what barriers block his path.
As a fan of Song Kangho, I was sure he would excel at a role like this, seeing as how his specialty is playing the Korean everyman; however, the script truly adds flavor to his character and makes him so relatable. The viewer is able to truly empathize with him as he is constantly on the fence about what is right morally and what the law states. With Song’s subtle details and impeccable timing, the character development is very apparent through the course of the film.
From the many movies I have watched in the past, I find Western actors in Korean films to be a very awkward experience. The conversation usually tends to be stilted and makes the scene decent at best. This was one of the first films I have watched where I truly felt that the actor was integrated into the local setting. Kretschmann seams in with the Korean cast effortlessly, not at all making any of the interactions feel forced. The chemistry between the two main characters is built over the few words and the many gestures they share. Towards the end, you truly feel the newfound respect these two men have for each other after everything they have shared.
Following his role in Reply 1988, actor Ryu Junyeol also adds the missing magic to this film. Playing a role as a student protester who has a strong sense of purpose and dream makes for one very endearing character that you will find yourself attached to from the get-go. Being the only English speaker in the group of protesters they meet, he is quickly picked up by the two and manages to create a close bond between the three. As a relatively new actor, his transition into this role needs to be applauded as not only did it feel natural, but he was able to shine and complement the other characters in the cinema. Also, after watching The King I never thought I’d be blessed to hear him speaking in dialect again. If the budding companionship between the three characters does not hit you right in the feels, the role of the taxi drivers truly will. Playing a vital role in the uprising, the film perfectly portrays the common soldiers of this brutal conflict. And if that isn’t enough, the sense of community you feel through the hostile conflicts should get you there.
At The End of The Tunnel
The film, while based on the uprising, does not linger on the politics or create unnecessary action with one single protagonist. Instead, it focuses on the everyday people, the idea of community, and the prevalence of humanity and companionship. It’s a film that is created to incite feelings much rather than inflame, and most of all it is a film created to praise dozens of heroes, not just one. Remarkable, effortless acting from Song Kangho, Thomas Kretschmann, and Ryu Junyeol paired with a delightfully low-key script and a traumatic event come together to create a true rollercoaster experience. If the context of the story wasn’t a tear-jerker itself, the film most definitely is. Reflective of this inhuman period of time in history with a smattering of heartwarming moments in between, this film is truly worthy of being called the blockbuster that it is. You will laugh. You will cry. But most of all you will come away from this film with a renewed sense of hope in humanity.