Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Synopsis: 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 to protest in hopes of the country once again gaining democracy.
In the spring of 1980, riots in Gwangju caused many roads to close and the city to practically shut down. All the while, a taxi driver from Seoul named Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) was struggling to make ends meet. As a single widowed father who was four months behind on rent, Kim was 100,000 won in the hole.
Kim then stumbled upon a job paying that exact amount, the caveat being it entails transporting a German reporter named Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) to the city of Gwangju. Kim volunteered and faked his way through speaking English to get Peter into his cab, all the while failing to realize how much danger awaited in the not-so-distant future.
Based on a true story, A Taxi Driver directed by Jang Hoon 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 is caring for both his daughter and his riders whom he often gives a break if they come up short on the cab fare or forget their wallets entirely.
The character of Kim arcs after starting off cheap and uninterested in politics, to then evolve into someone who cares deeply about making sure what’s happening in South Korea is brought into the public eye. All the while he makes sure not to leave his friends behind. Peter starts off as a journalist whose sole goal is documenting the horrible events currently digging their claws into South Korea and showing that footage to the world. But even he doesn’t know what he’s getting into and soon realizes he may have taken on a matter too big for one man.
The South Korean drama film is grasped entirely in the performances of Song and Kretschmann, but some of the supporting cast deserve 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 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, and his naiveté causes the actor to have a warm smile plastered to his face even at the worst of times.
Kretschmann looks like he could pass for the younger brother of Liam Neeson. Peter's relationship with Kim is strained at first not only because of the language barrier but because Kim is only in it for the money and Peter gets the impression he is in incapable hands.
Kretschmann portrays a man who takes his job incredibly seriously and 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 the lead actors that makes the film so memorable.
Song carries A Taxi Driver in an unusual way. His character is one 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 the country actively crumbling around him.
But Song brings this charismatic demeanor to Kim in a way that is infectious, charming, and oftentimes laugh out loud funny. Kim begins to wear on you as a person over the course of the film. He has many flaws, but in the end, you want to see him succeed. The actor brings this mesmerizing and entertaining value to the character in a way that is absolutely unparalleled.
Cinematographer Go Nak-seon adds just the right dynamic qualities to certain shots of the film, working to intrigue the viewer all 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; the camera often brings it 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 a split screen, one side showing Kim inside the car driving away, and on the other, the smoke-filled commotion 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 (which focused on the city and race relations during the Long, hot summer of 1967; the two films were released the same year). Violently captivating and emotionally effective, A Taxi Driver showcases the talented Song Kang-ho with one of the most invigorating and captivating performances of 2017.
© 2017 Chris Sawin