Taxi Driver, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/14/17 04:14:08

"Because you've got to get to the important moments and back."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"A Taxi Driver" ends with the traditional footage of a real-life person portrayed in the movie from many years later, and though it's a bit of a cliche, it also acknowledges that while the story may at times seem a little too good to be true, there's apparently enough to it to be worth buying into. There may be liberties taken in the making of this film, but there's more than a bit genuine at its core, and it's a quality film as well as an important true story.

As it opens in May 1980, Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho) has the same opinion of student protesters that most people in Seoul do - they're in the way, making it impossible for him to drive his private taxi from point A to point B; they don't know what real work and hardship is, like when he spent part of his youth working in Saudi Arabia's blistering heat; they're naive about the threat represented by the North and the authority that the government needs to fight it. Meanwhile, German telejournalist Jurgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) - "Peter" for short - is starting to feel too comfortable after his eight years in Tokyo, so when he gets word that something is going down in the city of Gwangju, he flies into Seoul claiming to be a missionary and hires a cab to drive him cross-country for 100,000 won. Kim, roughly that much in debt, steals the fare despite not really being as bilingual as he claims. Neither of them are quite prepared for exactly what is going on within the southern city, which has had the phone lines cut and roadblocks everywhere.

The Gwangju Uprising is a pivotal moment in the history of South Korea, one whose importance derives as much from it becoming public as the actual horror, although there's plenty of that. It takes a while to get there, although it's an impressive work of pacing that an American viewer like myself who is less likely to know the history won't feel like anything is being skipped over or taken for granted, though it raises the question of whether a Korean audience will think director Jang Hoon and writer Eom Yu-na are over-explaining. On the other hand, it gives the audience a little time to (re-)immerse themselves in South Korea circa 1980, with its military checkpoints and sanitized news, enough that the sight of a locked-down Gwangju is ominous and the violence that erupts shocking. Jang and Eom make the conscious decision to spend most of the movie showing things from the perspective of working-class Kim and outsider Hinzpeter, hammering home just how the military crackdown seems not just unjust, but almost unfathomable, rather than showing what reasons (corrupt or paranoid as they may be).

Jang started his career with more light-hearted action, but he handles the riot/massacre scenes well, using wide shots to show the scale of the violence and make the aggression of the army clear. When he does get in closer, it's never to show chaos, but an unflinching look at what riot gear allows those performing a crackdown to do without fear of recognition and thus retribution. Does it mean I necessarily believe the more popcorn-friendly action towards the end, when Jang shifts from this earnest, horrifying depiction of the riots to Song uniting with the taxi drivers of Gwangju to rescue wounded civilians and smuggle Peter's film out of the city, which plays more like a scene you'd create for a movie's climax? As much as it's just as impressively choreographed and executed, it seems a little too good to be true, a case of everyone doing the same sort of thing as before, just in a more escapist arrangement. It works, though, with genuine thrills and excitement.

Similarly, I'd kind of like it if Song Kang-ho and Thomas Kretschmann had a bit more chemistry together; this fast-forming friendship seems far more defined by how they irritate each other toward the start than their eventual camaraderie. The thing is, there's really no issue with either of them individually; Song plays the sort of working-class, smiles-a-bit-too-wide-to-avoid-being-irritable character he excels at, managing the shift toward sympathy with the protesters and willingness to act well, jumping from irascible to sincere in perfect fashion. Kretschmann is interesting in how he makes his reporter not quite so grizzled as he thinks, going through more horror than he expected after Peter has spent much of the early movie dismissing Kim's buffoonery. Their later respect is believable and well done; they just never seem to work off each other quite so well as they do intermediaries played by Yu Hae-jin and Ryoo Joon-yeol.

Is that enough, though, when half the point is that Song's "Mr. Kim" is, in some ways, a legend, and legends are allowed to defy belief? That's a point that, of necessity, pops up toward the end of the movie and may well play itself out too quickly for the true impact to be felt, even with a couple of scenes at the end pushing the point home. There is something quite vital to this, though - as much as the obvious, public hero of the story is Peter, the film also serves to remind viewers that this sort of heroism cannot be achieved without imperfect, sometimes literally anonymous people doing good things that nevertheless put them in danger.

Parts of "A Taxi Driver" are so good at presenting a realistic picture that it's okay to, as they say, print the legend in others, especially when the legend is actually relatively humble and enjoyably imperfect that he fits Song Kang-ho like a glove.

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