I went along to watch A Taxi Driver out of a sense of duty. What can be said about Gwangju, I thought, that hasn’t been said already? I’d rather see a documentary. Plus, Korean movies with foreign actors always raise slight alarm bells with me (Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country left me with memories of excruciating stiltedness) and while I know Song Kang-ho is box office gold I get tired of seeing the dim-witted but kind-hearted everyman character he often has to play.
Sometimes, doing your duty brings rewards.
For a start, the main foreign actor, Thomas Kretschmann, is a pleasure to watch, and Song Kang-ho’s character, though sharing elements with his slightly clownish roles in other films (The Host, Secret Sunshine) fits well with the task it has to do in this movie.
The story, based on real-life events, follows German journalist, Jürgen Hinzpeter, who hears rumours in Tokyo that something dramatic is happening in Gwangju and flies to Korea to find out more. Given that the new Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship has placed Gwangju under lockdown while it suppresses local unrest, the only way to get there is by taxi. Song Kang-ho’s character, Kim Sa-bok, manages to steal the ride from the driver who was actually hired, in need of a decent fare to pay off his rent arrears.
The dominant thread in the plot is Driver Kim’s journey of discovery. He starts the movie as a regular guy, uninterested in politics or current affairs, caring most about the scrapes his young daughter gets into with the neighbour’s son, and worrying where the next 10,000 Won is coming from. When he sees demonstrators in the streets of Seoul they are obstructions to his route rather than protestors for democracy. In his view, the demonstrators should get off the streets like the government tells them to, and students should be studying rather than protesting.
Even when he arrives in Gwangju and hears the gunshots he is slow to realise what is happening, and his first thoughts are to get himself and his passenger to safety rather than help him to do his job and get the story out to the outside world. It is only as the carnage escalates and begins to impact him personally that Kim realises that there is an important job to be done. And one of the chief obstacles in the way is the chief KCIA field officer in Gwangju, who has the sleek invincibility of a Terminator.
Jang Hoon manages to create a nigh-on perfect balance of humour, horror and humanity, and although the escape from Gwangju is far-fetched it provides a high level of exhilaration and an opportunity for the Gwangju taxi drivers to display their self-sacrificial heroism. Somehow Jang gets away with it: we’re willing to cut him a little slack after the enthralling drama of what has gone before.
The movie closes with some archive footage of an interview with Hinzpeter in which he expresses his gratitude to Driver Kim and wishes he could see him again: despite trying, he never managed to track the driver down after their epic adventure. One hopes the KCIA didn’t get him.
Highly recommended viewing. But then, what do I know? I rather liked Kim Ji-hoon’s 2007 movie May 18th too and most other people tell me it was rubbish.
Jang Hoon (장훈) A Taxi Driver (택시 운전사, 2017)