Film Review: A Taxi Driver

That profession is the only thing this film has in common with the similarly titled Scorsese classic, but it’s a classic in its own way.
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Seoul, 1980. Cash-strapped cabbie Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho), who’s the harried, widowed father of an adorable little girl, finagles and gets a supposedly dream fare: taking a German tourist named Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann, solid as ever) all the way to the city of Gwangju. What he doesn’t know is that his passenger is actually an intrepid news reporter determined to shoot footage of the rioting student unrest in South Korea which the fascistic government has suppressed, categorizing it under the now disgustingly disingenuous classification of “alternative facts.” After cleverly bypassing military blockades, this unlikely pair makes it to Gwangju, where they witness the brutal and murderous putdown of a political uprising, leaving many unarmed activists dead in the streets. The film’s climax is a hair-raising government-ordered chase of their car back to Seoul, in an effort to stop Hinzpeter’s revealing footage from being sent overseas and broadcast on international television.

Based on actual fact, Jang Hun’s very affecting accounting of this event in Korean history—the devastating exposure of the dire effects of martial law under dictator Chun Do-hwan—is elementally simple storytelling, possessing one helluva wallop. A Taxi Driver starts as an antic urban comedy with live-wire, hotheaded Kim stumbling through his days, working like a dog to meet the rent for his stern landlady with a bratty son who perpetually gets beaten up by Kim’s daughter.

A lot of irate Korean yelling goes on here at first, between Kim and his deadbeat passengers—and also Hinzpeter, who must put up with his deceptive behavior and faulty English as an expert on how to supposedly get into and out of the dangerous Gwangju. They eventually bond through adversity, especially during the extended sequence of innocent young bodies being torn apart by bullets in the streets, while their weaponless coevals dare to rush into the fray to rescue these battered victims, evoking the kind of adrenalined heroism which prompted those 9/11 first responders. (I visited Korea in 1981, through the auspices of my businessman-playboy Korean dad from Hawaii, who actually played golf with dictator Chun, and I experienced martial law firsthand, with curfews that kept you locked in hotel discos till dawn, staring at posters of a Saturday Night Feverish Travolta dancing in a free world, so I can attest that Jang’s take on the period feels very real.)

Amidst all the screaming and bloodshed, the movie settles down in one magical scene—a lively dinner which the two protagonists attend in the Gwangju home of an affable, ultimately heroic local cab driver. Like so much of the film, it is mere human interaction, but at its most distilled and authentic. The ancient trope of the white Westerner getting his mouth savagely burned by Korea’s infamously spicy pickled cabbage, kim chiit, is trotted out once more, yet somehow, through the beyond-ingratiating performances of the cast, it has a real freshness here. A student protester, who is eventually mercilessly snuffed out, gets up and sings with a charming lack of talent which bely his career aspirations in that direction. In these moments, you irrevocably fall in love with the characters, especially Kim, whose arc from blustery opportunist and hater of student protests for how they adversely affect traffic (and therefore his business) to true heroism after being disgusted by all the unjust tragedy he witnesses, is made vividly real, funny and unforgettably poignant by the wonderful Song, like a Korean Fred Flintstone with depth.

The film ends with a remarkably moving coda with a now-aged Hinzpeter reminiscing about the dear driver friend with whom he completely lost contact, at a memorial event held years after their experience. And then the film ends again, with even more touching documentary footage of the real Hinzpeter, who died in 2016, expressing the same bereft sentiments in real life.

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