A Harrowing Tale of Sacrifice
In October 1979, the 18-year era of dictatorship ended in South Korea when President Park Chun-hee was assassinated. General Chun Doo-hwan seized power and in 1980 outraged citizens flooded the streets in protest in hopes of the country once again gaining democracy. Riots in Gwangju caused many roads to close and the city to practically shutdown in the spring of 1980, but a taxi driver from Seoul named Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) struggles to make ends meet. As a single widowed father four months behind on his rent, Kim is 100,000 won in the hole. Kim stumbles onto a job paying that exact amount transporting a German reporter named Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) to the city of Gwangju. Kim volunteers and fakes his way through English to get Peter into his cab failing to realize how much danger awaits in the not distant future.
Based on a true story, A Taxi Driver revolves around the Gwangju Democratization Movement, which took place from May 18-27 in 1980. The film chooses to focus on a character completely disinterested in political matters. Kim Man-seob only cares about taking care of his daughter and yet typically gives his riders a break if they come up short on the cab fare or forget their wallets entirely. Kim goes through this character arc of starting off cheap and uncaring yet evolving into someone who cares very deeply about getting what’s happening in South Korea out into the public eye while not leaving his friends behind in the process. Peter starts off as a German journalist with the sole purpose of documenting the horrible events currently digging its claws into South Korea and showing that footage to the world, but even he doesn’t know what he’s getting into as he soon realizes he may have taken on a matter too big for one man to attempt.
The South Korean drama film is grasped entirely in the performances of Song Kang-ho and Thomas Kretschmann, but some of the supporting cast deserves some recognition as well. A compassionate Gwangju taxi driver named Hwang Tae-sool (Yoo Hae-jin from Attack the Gas Station and Tazza: The High Rollers) cares so deeply for the town he lives in and everyone who inhabits it. He latches onto and is concerned about everyone within a short amount of time, but he always seems taken aback by the events that unfold. Tragedy affects the performance of Yoo Hae-jin wholeheartedly as he seems to be choking back tears in between his depressing breakdowns. The university student Jae-sik (Ryu Jun-yeol) is an English translator for Peter, but his naiveté causes the actor to have this warm smile plastered to his face even at the worst of times.
Thomas Kretschmann looks like he could pass for the younger brother of Liam Neeson. His relationship with Kim is strained at first not only because of the language barrier, but also because Kim is only in it for the money while Peter is under the impression that he is in incapable hands. Kretschmann portrays a man who takes his job incredibly seriously, but is shaken by innocent people around him being massacred. He develops a bond with Kim that practically makes them inseparable and it’s that undeniable chemistry between Kretschmann and Song Kang-ho that makes the film so memorable.
Lead actor Song Kang-ho carries A Taxi Driver in an unusual way. Kim Man-seob is a character that the audience should probably dislike due to how conceited and cowardly he is and how he purposely chooses to keep his head in the sand despite his country crumbling around him in the meantime. But Song Kang-ho brings this charismatic demeanor to Kim that is infectious, charming, and at often times laugh out loud funny. Kim wears on you as a person over the course of the film. He has many flaws, but you want to see him succeed in the end. Kim Sang-ho brings this mesmerizing and entertaining value to the character that is absolutely unparalleled.
Cinematographer Go Nak-seon adds just the right dynamic qualities to certain shots of the film to intrigue the viewer without taking away from what’s occurring on-screen. A bullet crashing through the back windshield becomes a focal point for Kim’s lime colored taxi from Seoul as the camera often brings that into focus first before shifting to the passengers inside. Meanwhile something as simple as the camera being placed on the outside of the car as Kim is driving away brings certain concepts to life. In this particular shot, it’s as if the outline of the outside of the car door serves as split screen as it shows Kim inside the car driving away on one side and on the other you can see the smoke-filled commotion behind him that he’s speeding away from.
A Taxi Driver is a harrowing tale that highlights the importance of sacrifice. It feels like South Korea’s companion piece to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Violently captivating and emotionally effective, A Taxi Driver showcases the talented Song Kang-ho with one of the most invigorating and captivating performances of the year.
© 2017 Chris Sawin