Review: Jang Hun’s A TAXI DRIVER Enthralls And Reminices On A Time When Getting It On Video Meant Something

I haven’t seen a lot of films featuring actor Song Kang-Ho, although I can assert that he has never disappointed in being the entertaining actor that he is. Films like The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Snowpiercer come to mind, and I can certainly now add his latest performance in acclaimed filmmaker Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver to the list.

Reuniting with Jang since the 2010 action drama, The Secret Reunion, Song stars as Kim Man-Seob, a former soldier-turned-Seoul taxi driver struggling to make ends meet for himself and his daughter Eun-Jung. Desperate to pay the rent and keep the peace with his landlord, he jips a private cab service of its new scheduled pick-up: a high-paying customer named Peter who declares himself a missionary upon entry in South Korea.

Learning his latest mealticket happens to, instead, be German reporter from Japan covering the Gwangju uprising, Kim’s digression toward defying the local military slowly turns into reluctant cooperation. Joined by the aid of local residents fighting a losing battle, what ensues is an emotional journey for Kim, now a first-hand witness to the death, violence and tumult being filtered by propagandic news outlets, and a newfound ally to a cause worth way more than a quick paycheck.

I found it funny upon reading comments online that the poster for the film was deceiving. I personally don’t have a problem with it given the premise and so I wholly understood the nature of where a film like A Taxi Driver could possibly go. The film defintiely bodes well in its moments of lighthearted humor and Song especially contributes in that department, while further engagement into the movie will surely keep you on the edge of your seat.

Peter is played by Blade 2, Wanted and Stalingrad actor Thomas Kretschmann in a role reiterated from that of the actual journalist who recorded the events in Gwangju. Song and Kretschmann are impeccable in their perforamances together, aided by a script and direction that focuses less so on their linguistic limitations, but their growing perception of each other whether they clash or come to terms on their differences.

This also applies even after the entrance of actor Ryoo Joon-Yeol, the award-winning co-star of Han Jae-Rim’s The King. He plays Gu Jae-Sik, a student protestor part of the rebellion, and essentially the only other person who speaks English as Peter familiarizes himself with the rebellion and the local journalists facing censorship in their struggle to make their case to the world – a plea further shared by Guangju taxi driver Hwang Tae-Sool, performed pivotally by Luck-Key star Yoo Jae-Hin.

All these aside, the bulk of the film’s emphasis of perception lies heavily on the role of Kim who is an absolute skeptic from the film’s on-set. His transformation into a man capable of more empathy than he imagines is a perilous and visibly troubling one, invoked brilliantly as he goes from completely clueless to raw eyewitness to the tragic onslaught bestowed by the military and undercover soldiers who’ve fallen in line to the totalitarian state of things.

Much of what this film accomplishes in its narrative lies in how much it hits home with the viewer. Viral video has less an impact these days when it comes to informing the public due to the saturating nature of the internet, which makes a film like A Taxi Driver pretty essential viewing in one’s appreciation of the importance of journalism, even notably when investigative. Ryoo’s fellow cohort from The King, actor Choi Gwi-Hwa, is especially helpful in this regard as much as he is menacing in the role of an undercover military chief relentlessly in pursuit of Peter and the people aiding him, including Kim who becomes notoriously dubbed as “The Seoul Taxi Driver”.

There are some moments in the film that teeter on lagging but it’s nothing our actors can’t handle. Approaching the final third, either you’re already into the characters or simply waiting for things to pick back up. At any rate, the film does exactly what it is supposed to between scenes without missing a step; Midway in the film while in Gwangju, Kim’s taxi breaks down, allowing for some really intense nighttime events that heighten the drama and looming danger, as well as the stakes, including the narrowing window of opportunity he has to return home to Eun-Jung, played by young actress Yool Eun-Mi.

Jang is also careful not to take himself too seriously on this production; Equal parts Argo and Fast And Furious movie, the film earns this favor with several car and foot chases that make A Taxi Driver a delightful and compelling thrill ride right down to the final leg of the movie. The final chase scene adds to the spectacle with Choi in hot pursuit of Kim and Peter with guns blazing, followed by a surprising twist.

The film finishes on quite a sobering note which brings us to the original tale that culminates this movie. I can see what would draw Jang toward an historical adventure shared by two very different lives in moments like this one, imaginably as one in hundreds that have shaped the world during the last century. With this, A Taxi Driver draws a poignant and powerful  presentation with every ounce of substance it carries. Whatever your take is on this project, the film does, indeed, play a little loosely on a few facts. 

The genius here is that it does so without diminishing its premise or undercutting its characters and intent. Aside from winning at Fantasia this year officially representing South Korea for the 2018 Academy Awards for best foreign-language film, that the son of the actual driver who escorted the now late Jürgen Hinzpeter through the ravaged and bloodied streets of Gwangju, gave this film his blessing is a pure plus for our dear director, further making A Taxi Driver one of the most important films you’ll ever see.

A Taxi Driver is coming to VOD on November 7.