“As a journalist, you shouldn’t be in a place that’s too comfortable,” German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter says to his colleagues as they discuss the civil unrest in Gwangju, South Korea. He craves an interesting story, a chance to uncover a hidden truth to the world so when he hears about what’s happening there, he knows he must go.
The city is on lockdown, the phones have been cut off, and rumours of a violent conflict between protestors and the military are in the air. Martial law may have been declared but that won’t stop him from doing what he thinks is right, besides he’s thought of another way to get into the area —he’s going to go by taxi, and Kim Sa-bok is the man for the job. The driver, who used a false name with the reporter, is the unsung hero of this true story.
Without his determination and wits, the pair would never have got past the military blockades surrounding the city but as he used an alias he’s never been found or honoured for his bravery, until now. In director Jang Hoon’s retelling of the event, Sa-bok is a man struggling to make ends meet and provide for his daughter. When he hears that a foreigner is willing to pay 100,000 won to get to Gwangju, he jumps at the opportunity to help and will do anything to get the pair into the city. What they find isn’t good, though, as it’s quickly revealed that the media have been publishing propaganda to hide the truth. The military are ruling over the city with an iron fist, and are even willing to kill those protesting against them.
The director, Jang Hoon, worked alongside Kim Ki-duk for many years and has a keen eye for stunning visuals, as a result. He sets the tone with moody colour palettes and slow-motion shots, one scene, in particular, sees Hinzpeter, Sa-bok, and student protestor Jae-sik run away from the military through the back streets of the city, the whole area bathed in an eerie red light cast from a towering inferno. This imagery creates a heightened tension which is expertly crafted by director and actors alike; It’s scenes like this that make the film as intense and heart-breaking as it is, and Jang Hoon’s approach to the event ensures that the narrative is respectful to the victims.
The Gwangju uprising is a dark chapter in South Korea’s past. What happened to the town’s citizens is not easy to take in but it’s important that the story, and the horrible injustices they suffered, be told and remembered so that it’s not repeated. A Taxi Driver does an excellent job presenting the story without it becoming insolent, and this is particularly thanks to the cast.
Song Kang-ho and Thomas Kretchmann are excellent as the leading pair, creating many comedic and emotional moments thanks to their onscreen chemistry. Even if their characters don’t understand each other they are able to bounce off each other brilliantly just by throwing an insult or sharing a look. Ryoo Jeon-yeol also impressive as the sweet Jae-sik as he proves to be a striking presence whenever he’s onscreen. Their performances, combined with Jang Hoon’s outstanding vision, is what makes this film so powerful.
Written by Roxy Simons
All photos © 2017 Showbox Mediaplex Co.