Theme Tuesday - A Taxi Driver
For the month of February, I will be revisiting and discovering Korean blockbusters. Many countries are very careful with their foreign distribution, selecting films that will appeal to either the arthouse crowd or for the sizable minorities within foreign countries. Regardless, the biggest foreign blockbusters tend to be mostly unknown to foreign audiences.
Despite the stereotype of the “meek Asian,” Korea, South Korea in particular, has had a long history of protest. And despite the presence of a strong patriarchy and Confucian ideals about respect for your elders and people in power, many of these protests have been against people in authority - the Japanese, seemingly countless dictators, and, more recently, corrupt presidents. (President Park Geun-Hye was unseated for charges of corruption in 2016.)
The Gwangju people’s uprising of May 18th, 1980 served as a backdrop for one of the biggest comic set pieces in 2011’s Sunny, but in this film, the uprising is depicted in all of its senseless violence and brutality. What makes this film compelling is that much of the focus is on two men, Song Kang-Ho’s taxi driver Kim Man-Seob and Thomas Kretschmann’s foreign journalist Jurgen Hinzpeter. Both men need to get to Gwangju, Kim because of some desperately needed money and Hinzpeter because he will be one of the few foreign journalists covering this huge story.
The movie definitely takes its liberties with events. There’s a dramatic scene using taxis as weapons that is very much geared for melodramatic impact. It has to take these some of these liberties since the original taxi driver was never identified, despite extensive searches to determine his identity from Hinzpeter and other interested parties. I think the movie’s focus on the arcs of these two men is what keeps this from devolving into manipulative melodrama. Despite the horrific events going around, the film takes time to capture the brief moments of respite the two men have and getting to know the ordinary people of Gwangju. It only makes the film more dramatic when we see many of these same people hurt or even killed, and, more importantly, it doesn’t feel false when these events happen.
Song Kang-Ho is one of the best actors working in Korea today, and he proves it by making us believe that he has a better understanding of the plight of the citizens of Gwangju, especially after seeing military literally firing on unarmed people. Kretschmann is excellent too, as the opportunistic journalist, who finds himself inevitably involved with the citizens of Gwangju and Kim’s plight (he is broke and has no one to take care of his daughter). Neither of these men change their essential natures, but they change in their attitudes towards other people and to each other. Overall, the film is a great, solid piece of entertainment and also serves to remind us of the dangers of an unchecked dictatorial government.