‘A Taxi Driver’ Honors a Humble Hero in South Korea

‘A Taxi Driver’ Honors a Humble Hero in South Korea
A TAXI DRIVER Directed by Hun Jang Action, Drama, History 2h 17m

From left, Thomas Kretschmann and Song Kang-ho in “A Taxi Driver,” based on a true story of heroism in South Korea in 1980. CreditCho Won Jin/Well Go USA
With (“The Front Line”) takes historical events in South Korea — the imposition of martial law in 1980 by the dictator Chun Doo-hwan — to construct an affecting what-if tale. The plot has a factual basis: the relationship between a German TV journalist, Jürgen Hinzpeter, and the cabdriver who drove him from Seoul to the locked-down city of Gwangju, at the time a hotbed of pro-democracy student rebellion and violent repression. While the real-life name of the cabby and his ultimate fate are unclear (his name may have been Kim Sa-bok), the film calls him Kim Man-seob and gives him a poignant back story and destiny.

A preview of the film. By WELL GO USA on Publish DateAugust 10, 2017. Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.Watch in Times Video »
Kim (Song Kang-ho) is a garrulous if gruff widowed father to an 11-year-old girl, impatient with traffic jams resulting from protests in Seoul. If it weren’t for the back rent he owes, he wouldn’t need to take Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) to the besieged Gwangju. But when he does, they witness a huge street demonstration that is met with tear gas and military brutality. The soft-spoken Hinzpeter is determined to smuggle footage of the dictatorship’s abuses to a German news organization, while the heretofore neutral Kim comes to realize the urgency of Hinzpeter’s mission.

The film climaxes with a breathless escape from Gwangju, as Kim and Hinzpeter elude government vehicles with the aid of other cabdrivers. But most impressive is Mr. Song, who persuasively conveys a working stiff’s political awakening.

A Taxi Driver
Director Hun JangStars Kang-ho Song, Thomas Kretschmann, Hae-jin Yoo, Jun-yeol Ryu, Hyuk-kwon ParkRunning Time 2h 17mGenres Action, Drama, History
Movie data powered by IMDb.com
Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
Not rated. In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes.

Film Review: ‘A Taxi Driver’
An entertaining journey into a tragic and violent chapter of Korean modern history.
By Maggie Lee @maggiesama
Maggie Lee
Chief Asia Film Critic

Director: Jang HoonWith: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Ryoo Yun-ryul, Oh Dal-su. (Korean, English, German dialogue)
Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6878038/
Revisiting the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, a landmark historical event in South Korea’s march towards democracy, director Jang Hoon brings a sappy, feel-good touch to a tragic subject by focusing on the bond between a German reporter (Thomas Kretschmann) and the taxi driver(Song Kang-ho) who helped him get the news out to the world.

Jang, who’s established himself as a hit-maker with features like “Secret Reunion” (also starring Song) and “The Front Line,” again worked B.O. miracles, earning the third highest domestic opening score of all time with “A Taxi Driver.” While the film clearly taps into the national zeitgeist, buoyed by a sweeping show of people’s power that ousted the president, international audiences should also appreciate the actors’ feisty turns. (It opened in the U.S. on Aug. 11.)“A Taxi Driver” is the first major production to tackle the Gwangju Uprising head-on since the 2007 blockbuster “May 18.” Having less pretensions to epic grandeur than that film, it instead gains credibility from being based on a true story, and closing footage of the German reporter returning to the democratized country in 2003 certainly adds historical heft.

The script by Uhm Yoo-na and Jo Seul-ye has drastically simplified the political context that triggered the uprising, but this in turn helps foreign viewers grasp the plot more easily than denser, more intellectual probings of the subject in such films as Im Sang-soo’s “The Old Garden” or Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy.” Opening titles explain how the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee sparked hopes of democracy among the younger generation, though the power vacuum was soon filled by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who declared martial law in a 1980 coup. In Gwangju, protest quickly spilled out of universities and engulfed the southwestern city.

Despite the government’s attempts at keeping foreign press in the dark, Juergen Hinspeter (Kretschmann), correspondent for a German broadcast channel, gets wind of the unrest brewing in South Korea. From his base in Tokyo, he flies to Seoul where his contact helps him book a taxi to drive him south to the beleaguered city. When the protagonist (Song) whose real name is never revealed in the film, overhears that a foreigner is forking out about $900 for the fare, the cash-strapped single father cunningly steals the job from the intended driver.

They arrive on May 19, a day after the uprising broke out, to find the city completely sealed off by the army, although the two still manage to bluff their way pass blockades. Initially, they come across a group of students whose youthful innocence is expressed by the way they sing and dance like revelers at a Woodstock concert, but eventually wind up at a hospital where the casualties provide raw evidence of the bloody crackdown.

The protagonist becomes embroiled in a squabble with local taxi drivers, who scoff at his mercenary attitude. Jang makes good-humored fun of biases between Seoul citizens and natives of the Jeolla district, where the film takes place, but later demonstrates how humanist values transcend regional differences. Although the driver initially displays cowardice in the face of conflict, his personal struggle is rendered agonizing enough by Song to give full force to a climactic U-turn.

Apart from re-creating one incident in which paratroopers tried to wipe out a whole crowd in front of a broadcast station, the film eschews the kind of bombastic, effects-heavy setpieces that characterized “May 18.” Instead, it depicts the regime’s brutal repression implicitly through its blatant attack on press freedom and shameless distortion of the truth. This in turn accentuates Hinzpeter’s role in raising international awareness for their crimes.

According to historical records, on May 20, hundreds of taxis mobilized themselves in a parade to support marching citizens and rescue the injured. Hailed as “drivers of democracy,” many lost their lives. Since only a few taxis are deployed in any given scene, the film hasn’t re-created an adequate sense of the scope of their heroism. However, the power of solidarity is conveyed in a late car-chase sequence that’s choreographed to rousing effect. (The film looks polished overall, its mood buoyed by a playful, jazzy score.)

Although the film’s portrayal of its main characters has recognizable precedents, the two lead actors calibrate their mutual respect and co-dependency to engaging effect, as the escalating violence and peril heighten their sense of personal mission. Echoing the role of American correspondent Sydney Schanberg in “The Killing Fields,” Hinzpeter arrives in Korea as an opportunistic newshound rather than a champion of justice. Kretschmann plays him initially with an unlikable cold efficiency, treating his driver and other Koreans as mere tools or fodder for his article. Impressively, there are no overnight changes in his persona. Rather, the actor maintains a certain stiff composure even as his passion and affection for the democracy fighters visibly grows. The final parting is genuinely touching as the two men now relate to each other as equals.

Audiences familiar with Korean cinema will instantly recognize a resemblance between the character of the taxi driver and Song’s role in “The Attorney,” in which he transforms from a mercenary tax solicitor to an altruistic human-rights lawyer. And yet Song makes a subtle distinction between the two characters, as his comic charm betrays the tough-talking character’s soft heart, as when he keeps letting passengers in need short-change him.

Film Review: 'A Taxi Driver'

Reviewed at Korean Film Council screening room, Aug. 4, 2017. Running time: 137 MIN. (Original title: "Taeksi Woonjeonsa”)

PRODUCTION: (S. Korea) A Showbox Mediaplex (in South Korea), Well Go USA (in U.S.) release of The Lamp production in association with Ace Investment & Finance, Leo Partners Investment, Signature Film, Interpark, Huayi Investment, Huayi Brothers Korea, Korea Broadcast Advertising Corp. (International sales: Showbox) Producer: Park Un-kyoung. Executive producer: You Jeong-hun. Co-executive producers: Hwang Young-won, Kim Song-soo, Han Suk-woo, Park Jin-young, Oh Seung-wook, Ji Seung-bum, Kwak Sung-moon. Co-producer: Choi Ki-sua.

CREW: Director: Jang Hoon. Screenplay: Ho Kei-ping. Camera (color, widescreen): Ko Nak-sun. Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum. Music: Cho Young-wook.

WITH: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Ryoo Yun-ryul, Oh Dal-su. (Korean, English, German dialogue)

By Shane Slater - Nov 18, 2017

Released earlier this year to strong box office both at home and abroad, “A Taxi Driver” shines a spotlight on South Korean history with poignant and entertaining results. Now, director Jang Hoon hopes to make some history of his own. The film is now an official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, an award for which South Korea has never been nominated. And for Jang Hoon, it will be his second chance at bat. As we await this year’s nominations, I caught up with the promising filmmaker for a chat about the making of the film and his Oscar hopes. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Shane Slater: How did you come across this taxi driver’s story?

Jang Hoon: The production company saw the awards speech of the German journalist Mr. Hinzpeter in 2003. They got the idea from watching that speech. It took a while and the first draft of the screenplay was completed in 2015. Then they sent the draft to me and I read the script and decided to join the team.

SS: How did you choose the right actor for this role?

JH: Song Kang-ho was the first person that occurred to me when I read the script. I couldn’t think of anyone else.

SS: There seems that there was a great atmosphere of denial surrounding the events depicted. What is the public’s perception of it today?

JH: Those who actually had to live through this tragedy of the Gwangju Uprising, they knew about it of course. And their contemporaries learned about it through many testimonies, including the reporter and his documentary. Of course, there are younger generations who didn’t know about it and I guess the film helped these younger generations to understand what really happened in Gwangju.

SS: The Gwangju Uprising happened when you were very young. Did your understanding of the events change during the process of making the film?

JH: Yes, I was young at the time. The first time I heard about the Gwangju Uprising was when I was in college. I knew a little bit, not too much. So while preparing for the film I had to do a lot of research and I got to know the details really well.

SS: You’ve made a number of genre films before and some of those elements are included here. Were those action scenes like the car chase based on real life?

JH: The car chase didn’t happen, but it was a known fact that taxi drivers in Gwangju helped out the citizens a lot and made a lot of sacrifices themselves. It’s a symbolic expression of their sacrifice and their help. To be honest with you, that scene was really hard. I felt a lot of pressure. It’s the most cinematic scene.

SS: Do you find it easier to direct true stories, or do you prefer fictional ones?

JH: That’s a difficult question. Both have easy and difficult parts. I understand that when you create something based on a piece of history, I don’t have complete liberty. Certain facts must be there. So what’s hard about making a film based on a true story, is that I have to keep those facts in mind but I also have to create a movie that will appeal to audiences effectively. So while I was working on “A Taxi Driver” I deeply felt that my next project should be completely fiction.

SS: This is such an important part of South Korean history and the film is also representing the country at the Oscars. Is there added pressure?

JH: Yes, I feel added pressure. If I was chosen as an Oscar contender with a completely fictional story, I would feel less pressure. But this is based on a true story, so yes, there is extra pressure.

SS: South Korea has never been nominated before. Is there excitement from the public for this film to finally make it?

JH: I was in the race with my previous movie “The Front Line” in 2011. This is my second time as a contender and yes, I feel the expectations are higher this time. But of course, I’m telling you from my own experience.