No, I am not exaggerating. I’ve seen my share of Korean movies, and A Taxi Driver is at the top of my list. But do know that I am a sucker for historical movies, and A Taxi Driver is one well-executed historical movie.
The Historical Setting
The movie is set in 1980 South Korea when the people of a city named Gwangju rose up against military rule and pushed for democratisation. The uprising started off as a peaceful protest on 18th May 1980. But after the military exercised brutal force, some protestors raided armouries and police stations, armed themselves and expelled the military on 21st May. Gwangju was “liberated” for 5 days. Meanwhile, the military blockaded the roads and asked for total surrender. On 27th May, troops from 5 divisions captured the city.
The incident played a major role in South Korean history and paved the way for pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. “Remember Gwangju” was the slogan of the June Uprising of 1987 that led to South Korea becoming a democracy. So watch this movie to get an insight into what happened in Gwangju in 1980.
A major problem I have with many historical movies is that they try to cover too much and end up being an absolute mess. A Taxi Driver does not fall prey to this trap. The above brief description of the historical setting must’ve given you an idea about the number of events that unfolded between the 18th and the 27th of May 1980. This movie sticks to just a few days. It doesn’t deviate too much from the perspective of the protagonists. It gives you very little background information (read no long exposition through dialogue) about the uprising.
The movie has two protagonists – Kim Man-seob and Jürgen Hinzpeter. Kim Man-seob is a taxi driver and is played by Song Kang-ho. Jürgen Hinzpeter is a journalist and is played by Thomas Kretschmann. The movie does us a great service by having these two characters as the protagonists because while they are the core of A Taxi Driver, they are not the core of the Gwangju People’s Uprising. They, like us, are observers and we see the events unfold around them as they watch on helplessly.
Song Kang-ho has been in the international limelight recently for his performances in Snowpiercer and Parasite. And if you’ve seen either, you know it is needless to say that he delivers a fantastic performance. The real surprise for me was Thomas Kretschmann. He pulls off his character effortlessly and is able to bring subtle nuances into the role that will leave you in tears.
The Supporting Cast
Another place where many historical movies shoot themselves in the foot is by not casting the right people in supporting roles. A Taxi Driver has a wonderful supporting cast. Characters with barely 15 minutes of total screen time become so close to your heart that you can’t help but root for their cause. They help bring out the ground-level perspective of the uprising and the implications of violent oppression of a peaceful demonstration stares at you (literally).
In a time when we (still) have Governments across the globe suppressing protests and dissent with violent force, this on-the-ground view gets you thinking from the perspective of the people affected by this violence. And that, dear reader, is the primary reason why A Taxi Driver is at the top of my list of favourite Korean movies.
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If you’ve watched A Taxi Driver, I’d like to hear your thought about the movie. If you have not, do watch it and share your views in the comments section below.