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[Movie Review] A Taxi Driver showcases the heroism of ordinary people

Based on true events, A Taxi Driver stars Song Kang-ho as Kim Man-seob, a man struggling to make a living for himself and his daughter, who gets caught up in a nightmare when he takes an unusual passenger. In the spring of 1980, German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) has flown to Seoul from Tokyo upon hearing unsettling rumors.

Hinzpeter arrives in Seoul to find out that all communication for the southwestern city of Gwangju has been cut off, and official reports tell only of riots. He hires Man-seob to drive him to Gwangju and back for a very generous 100,000 KRW; Man-seob is unaware of the political situation and sees only an opportunity to pay off his debts.

Thus begins a journey fraught with fear and danger, as the seriousness of what is happening in Gwangju slowly dawns on the two men, and they begin to realize that they may never make the promised return trip to Seoul. In Gwangju, they meet student protestor Jae-shik (Ryu Jun-yeol), a young man who wants to make music but who, like his fellow students, has put that off in favor of a greater dream: to see a free and democratic society replace the brutal oppression of South Korea’s military regime.

To give some historical context, martial law was declared after dictator Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. In 1980, in Gwangju, tens of thousands of protestors, mainly students, demonstrated in the streets in what is often called the Gwangju Uprising, or the May 18 Democratic Uprising.


Gwangju, 1980

The military was brutal and ruthless in its repression of these protests, beating and firing upon civilians without mercy; deaths numbered in the hundreds, while newspapers were censored, and TV news reported propaganda about rioting by Communists and misrepresented the number of deaths, blaming them on civilians. Gwangju’s phone lines were cut, and no one was allowed to enter or leave the city.

Into this pressure cooker of civil unrest come Man-seob and Hinzpeter, barely able to communicate via Man-seob’s broken English. Their relationship doesn’t start out friendly, full of misunderstandings and friction, and that only adds to the difficulty of an already incredibly tense situation (while providing viewers with a few welcome moments of comic relief). The film did an excellent job of setting up both characters’ motivations and the catalysts for them becoming traveling companions, and one of the pleasures of this movie was watching the evolution of their relationship.

Song Kang-ho gives a moving performance as a widower who has no interest in causes or movements—all he wants is to provide his daughter with a home and buy her a new pair of shoes. Unlike Hinzpeter who is willing to take some risks for an important story, Man-seob is in it for the money. Nor does he initially believe reports of the military’s brutality; he’s just a regular ajusshi, trying to keep his head above water with a job that doesn’t pay enough, both too busy and too complacent to care what the government is up to. He’s not a saint, but a man who fears loss and hardship and doesn’t always make the most noble decisions, and that makes him relatable. It’s meeting the people of Gwangju, who are fighting and dying for freedom with a courage that seems foolish to him, that opens his eyes and slowly begins to change him.

I was particularly moved by the group of Gwangju taxi drivers, led by Yoo Hae-jin, who were active members of the resistance. The historical record tells us that taxi and bus drivers were essential to the uprising, leading the charges against the soldiers and later shielding citizens from the artillery. This part of the story was brought to life wonderfully in the film, showing how the people organized through civilian resources to fight back against a government that had given itself over to greed and violence.

The greatest strength of this movie lies in its focus on the story of this two-day journey, rather than trying to take on the entire ten-day uprising. A Taxi Driver focuses on these two men and the people they met and interacted with, all with the goal of smuggling this horrifying footage out of Korea and in front of a world audience. Each person knew that this was a mission greater than any one of them, and the price of failure would be the loss of many more lives. It inspired a level of bravery and sacrifice that was truly moving to watch, even more so because I knew as I watched that it actually happened.

South Korea in the spring of 1980 is lovingly recreated by the filmmakers, down to the careful reconstruction of both the physical environment and the strange, tense atmosphere of that time. The director started working on this project in 2003, painstakingly putting together the story from eyewitness accounts and personal interviews, and this gives the viewer a feeling of witnessing history as it unfolds. I forgot I was watching a movie, not least because the film’s chillingly accurate depiction of events echoes some of the most famous photographs of the Gwangju Uprising—photographs that may not be familiar to an international audience, but surely form part of the Korean national psyche. It’s no wonder this movie has been number one at the domestic box office for weeks. It’s a painful reminder of a time when their own military cruelly turned on the citizens they were sworn to protect, for no reason except to gain and maintain political power.

This is not an easy movie to watch. I was crying during much of the film, caught between rage and sorrow at the brutality that human beings are capable of. And yet I was also awed and inspired by the incredible bravery of ordinary people, willing to sacrifice it all for the hope of a better future, even if they never see that future themselves. A Taxi Driver is a testament to the vast capacity of the human heart for courage and goodness, even in the face of certain defeat.

And in a way, I was left comforted, because it illustrated that fighting for what’s right is never a waste of time, even when you lose. The Gwangju Uprising was ultimately crushed completely on May 27th, and it took eight more years for South Korea to achieve democracy. Yet the lives lost were not in vain, and they didn’t disappear—even in death, they’re witnessing against oppression and fear, and inspiring those who live on to do the same. This movie expressed that message eloquently, subtly, without becoming maudlin or preachy, and on top of that is a skillfully crafted work of art. I can’t recommend it enough.

More stills from the film:

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I had goosebumps and ended up tearing up just with this review. Gah, I really need to see this one!

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Same

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I did get goosebumps too!!! Sitting in office and crying would not look good!!!!

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Powerful stuff this. Tears in my eyes too. I will need to make the time to see this in theatres.

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Yay! Finally a movie review! Thanks!

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Does anyone know when it's coming to the States? This looks great and I liked the review.

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I answered my own question, for those in the Boston area it's playing at AMC Leows Boston Common at 15:30 and 21:20.

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AMC Theatres are really good with picking up Korean films surprisingly. I saw Tazza 2 at an AMC. You can see if it is playing near you: https://www.amctheatres.com/movies/a-taxi-driver-54327

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Definitely will see this. Congrats to the cast and crew. It seems all the success has been well-deserved.

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Since we Venezuelans are living an historic moment like this, I am interested.

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I just came back from Korea this weekend and when I was in Seoul, I saw a bus ad for this film and was reminded of Dramabeans mentioning it. I didn't get the chance to watch the film I talked a little about the Gwangju uprising with my friend who is a local there. She said similar things to what Laica mentioned about the importance of the sacrifices the people made. Thanks for reminding me again, definitely gonna try watch this at my cinemas.

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Ah yay a movie review! I hope this becomes a regular thing! I watched this on premiere night mainly for RJY, but was absolutely blown away and moved by the movie. Perfect casting, writing, and directing. Your review is spot on.

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I'd heard good things about Taxi Driver but didn't really know what it was about. Now I definitely want to see it. Does anyone know if this has a lot of graphic violence though? I don't like seeing lots of gore.

The more I learn about South Korea, the more I realize how little I know about its history. I would love to take a class or read a book that gives an overview of Korean history from saeguk era to the present.

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I've just started a book that seems pretty good, "Korea, The Impossible Country" by Daniel Tudor.

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@bbstl Thanks for the suggestion!

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I love the idea of having movie reviews on dramabeans! I vote it for theme of the month, or regular feature, please. ^^

Will definitely catch Taxi Driver now. I don't follow Korean movies as much as I do dramas but this definitely seems worth checking out.

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♡♡♡. But also, this film broke me. I was a mess walking out of that theater.

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Where and when can we find it with eng subs online? I think Dongju is still unavailable.

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maybe in a few months or so... it's a shame how fast these movies get posted - sometimes while still in the theaters! but then we international fans get to see them... albeit illegally sometimes... if it's playing in the theaters near me, i try to go see it.

in fact, have plans to go see this movie tomorrow!
; )

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Dongju is available on Viki in case you want to see it. Viki did get some more recent movies a while ago.

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I really want to see this but it isn't always so easy to find Korean films with EngIish sub-titles. I'm still checking for Map against the World.

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Watched A Taxi Driver last weekend. All the actors put in fantastic performances. For those beanies in Sydney, catch this while it's playing in Event Cinemas George St. It's worth watching.

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i want to see this. I even marked the premiere date of it...LOL
heard it somewhere that this movie was banned before it even began showing during previous Korean gov, tho i didnt know if it's true

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I will wait for this movie yay!

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Want to see this movie but cannot because it did not release in our country and no free online sites bit the review and trailer were so nice
Please help me in watching this movie

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You'll have to wait for 2-3 months to see it trough streaming, patience is your biggest frenemy.

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J'ai hâte de le voir!!! I hope it will come to french cinemas as well. I'm willing to pay for it and make the time to see it in theatre, although it's not easy for me. There are still plenty of countries where this is happening - like turkey for example or where it happened ( in my country in 1968 and after in 1989). Students have so much will and courage to fight, to believe in democracy, in what's right for everybody. They bring life, they're the power engine of the society.

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I wanted so much to watch this film in the movies, it seems to be amazing, but I don't know when it will debut in my country, if it will debut. The only films that I have been able to watch at the cinema in my country that is Korean are The Handmaiden, Train to Busan and Snowpiercer.
Of course since I started tracking Korean entertainment.

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Wow! Hoping this would be a regular feature! Taxi Driver is a good film. Hope this would have subs soon. ??

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If it has been released in your country it should have subs ?.

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Yes kiaraaa. English subtitle i mean. Im so happy to say that they will release it around October. Kyaaah. Can't wait for it! 😆😆😁😁

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This movie was released in the US in select theaters. Saw it 2 weeks ago in Chicago. It was devastating and there were many times I was bawling watching This. I knew Korea had this histoy but didn't know the details and the extent of it. Glad this movie was made to share koreas history

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Everything about this movie was amazing. The acting, cinematography, and the story.

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Such a timely story, I hope it's Korea's nominee for the Oscar and then many people will get to see it especially if it wins Best Foreign Film ??

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Oh movie review! Please make this a regular feature!

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Reading this review itself made me have goosebumps . . I sat idly unable to come out of it for a few minutes. .

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This movie broke my heart. As a Korean-American living in USA I was so saddened and heartbroken by the events that happened. I can't imagine what the people of Gwangju went through in that time of history. I am glad that they made this movie and are telling this story and it's a great movie at that! I just watched in tonight at the Buena Park CGV in CA. I highly recommend it.

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Even the trailer alone left me with a deep impression. I had to go and google research about the uprisings right after I saw it. Hope to see the movie sometime soon!

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My adult students here in Jeju have been raving about how good it is--I can hardly wait until an English subtitle version is released.

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When I saw that last before, I thought the movie was a comedy and a feel good movie. I teared a bit after reading this. Ahh.. this genre always make me soft. Congratulations to the whole team for making this awesome. Congratulations, Ryu Jun-yeol!❤️

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May 18 Democratic Uprising
pictures:
https://goo.gl/CZnAW7
Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwangju_Uprising

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This was a really good movie. I was laughing and bawling throughout. The entire theater applauded at the end.

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It appears that chungmuro is up to the same madness that our own wretched hollywood cohort has been up to for decades. Using well made stories to revise the inconvenient truths of history. Korea's early regimes were horrible from a human rights standpoint. But their methods were long ingrained in the Korean way of governance and the Korean public mindset. Their aotocratic control was a necessary feature of forging a nation which could remain independent from its regional neighbors. However, eventually the people would naturally realize their right to power and a stable and true democracy would emerge from the only place it could: from the grass roots up.

The part about the communist threat and attempt to hijack the public's discontent was not a false narrative. If the Korean people don't want to put the nation's neck back under Chinese and Russian boots, they'll repudiate this revisionist narrative whenever it raises its ugly head to spew its ugly lies.

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After a long adventure, I finally got to watch this. Ahhh. Such a good watch.

It's very timely now because I am from the Philippines and the situation there right now scares me (though I don't live there anymore). I do not wish any of the happenings in this movie on any country. It is brutal and stupid. Killing innocent people? Seriously? It was frustrating to watch. Still, there are people who continue to fight for freedom and I am grateful for such people.

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