[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.
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: