To this day, the Gwangju Uprising remains controversial in Korea. Partisans on either side still claim either the North Koreans or U.S. military intervened, despite a lack of evidence either party got involved. Reportedly, the ROK Army suffered its greatest casualties when they opened fire on each other, which is never an advisable tactic. However, they had no trouble shooting at unarmed civilians when German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter started secretly filming the Uprising. His footage shocked the world, but it was even more traumatic for the cabbie who witnessed it unfold live in Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver, which opens today in New York.
Like many Koreans, the mystery cabbie calling himself “Kim Man-seob” believed the demonstrations were just a few self-indulgent college students. Frankly, he does not pay much attention to rumor or the media, so has no idea what he is getting into when he intercepts a pre-arranged 100,000 won fare to take Hinzpeter from Seoul to Gwangju and back. Much to his surprise, the military has barricaded all roads into town. Once they slip in, Kim will also be even more taken aback by the city’s war footing. He just wants to get paid and return to Seoul, but when he delivers a secondary fare to the hospital, the death and suffering he sees there will finally rouse his political conscience and sense of outrage.
As it turns out, Gwangju cabbies were highly activist, because Hwang Tae-sul and his colleagues give their Seoul counterpart quite a dressing down. Regardless, the taxicab setting is quite convenient for facilitating plenty of car chases and stunt driving. However, it is still quite a faithfully rendered period production, most definitely including the cars and the clothes, but also probably the music too (but we will defer to the judgement of K-pop experts on that point).
You have to give Korean cinema credit for hospitality when they cast western actors in major roles. While Chinese films pretty much only employ Yank and Brit expats as cartoon villains (hello, Wolf Warrior franchise), Korean films offer some highly sympathetic portrayals of historical figures. In this case, Thomas Kretschmann’s Hinzpeter is a figure audiences will personally root for even more than Liam Neeson’s Douglas MacArthur in the rip-roaring Operation Chromite and he covers a wider emotional range.
Of course, Song Kang-ho was born to play slightly problematic everymen, like Kim. His steadfast denial and constant bickering with Hinzpeter wears a little thin after the first act, but he really lowers the boom in his scenes of disillusionment with the government and subsequent embrace of democratic idealism. The ever-reliable Yoo Hai-jin is also likably salty but down to earth as Hwang.