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Since its inception as an entity separate from the North, South Korea has had an ugly history of bad government leadership.  Decades of corruption, assassinations, coups and military rule have plagued the populace, engendering protests and demonstrations that have sometimes ended in tragedy.  Based on a true story, A TAXI DRIVER sets those turbulent times as its backdrop.

Under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea is a land of turmoil, as protestors across the nation fight for democracy.  Constant demonstrations are a common sight in Seoul, and those working on the city streets prepare accordingly.  Kim Man-seob sees these incidents every day and is unfazed; carrying zinc oxide once the tear gas pellets are released and employing stunt driver-level defencive moves through the streets he knows so well.  Even in the midst of chaos, Kim keeps a level head as he picks up passengers in need; calming a pair of in-labour parents moments away from birth (who then stiff him on payment) and only grumbles when a fleeing protestor knocks the mirror off his passenger door.  Kimís main focus is the welfare of his little daughter, who he is both parents to after the loss of his wife.  The tense situation across the city makes for tough financial times, and Kimís constant lateness with the rent and inability to even buy shoes for his girl have him seeking a quick won.

His saviour comes in the form of a German journalist aiming to head toward the heart of political strife. In the rural area of Gwangju, the anti-regime protests have upped in tension while public communication out of the region grows quieter.  Peter plans to infiltrate the area and report the goings-on to the world, but first he needs an English-savvy driver to get him into the increasingly locked-down Gwangju.  Having overheard a fellow driver brag about the huge amount of money he will claim for the ride, Kim swipes the fare from his pal, and armed with a smattering of English, sets off in his rickety cab with the German passenger, with nary a clue about the growing violence in the cut-off city.

Avoiding the armed military blocking every major inroads, Kim sneaks through rural backroads to the heart of Gwangju, which resembles a ghost town with intermittent signs of protest.  His lack of awareness of his customerís true purpose and his inability to understand him well, puts the pair at odds as the journalist begins recording the scene and interacting with student protesters.  Frustrated that the ride - and payment - will not be as simple as he imagined, Kim attempts to abandon his charge, but finds himself in the hotbed of the crisis.  After his better nature compels him to transport a protesterís worried mother to the local hospital, Kim is surrounded by residents beaten and killed by the military forces ordered to quell the insurgency. 

Reunited with Peter, Kim finds himself regarded as a hero once the Gwangju locals discover that the reporterís true mission is to break the news embargo and get their story out into the world.  Itís not what Kim wanted at all, but he is trapped overnight as the situation in the city grows more severe.  Kim becomes witness to atrocities he could have ever dreamed of as the military turns its guns on unarmed civilians, slaughtering them in the streets for even trying to drag away dead or wounded compatriots.  Kim wrestles with an unwanted sense of responsibility that risks his ever returning home to Seoul and his beloved daughter again.

At the center of A TAXI DRIVER is the performance of Koreaís acting god, Song Kang-ho, who sets up the everyman Kim perfectly for the audience.  A forlorn widower with many regrets and cares, struggling to be a good dad to his growing girl; he sometimes falls short and his shame at disappointing his daughter and being seen by others as a loser simmers beneath his surface.  He also shows us the cabbieís careworn, seen-it-all-before bleak sense of humour that keeps his sanity.  Kim is as far from a hero or do-gooder as he can get, but despite his desire to keep out of trouble and carry on with the work of earning a living, Kim is begrudgingly kindhearted enough to obey his conscience at the most inopportune times.  More than the shocking violence, itís his interactions with the regular folk who treat him kindly in Gwangju that makes him see the seriousness of the situation around him.

The bright spots of A TAXI DRIVER are the heartfelt performances by Song and co-stars, Yoo Hae-jin as a Gwangju cabbie who takes in Kim and Peter after they are stranded, and Ryu Jun-yeol as the idealistic college protestor.  Itís also eye-opening to discover this reenactment of a period of history those of us in the west might know very little about. 

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks: The film features a bonafide western star in Germanyís Thomas Kretschmann {QUEEN MARGOT, THE PIANIST, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON}, as its undercover journalist, risking his life to reveal the wrongdoing in the Korean countryside.  However, Kretschmann is terrible in this.  He radiates nothing in his scenes and gives the flattest, most passionless line readings imaginable.  I had to wonder if he was overpowered by Songís rich portrayal, or was there perhaps a hesitance on the part of director Jang Hoon to coax a viable performance from the actor?  Scenes where heís meant to show emotion - and there are many Ė are about as passionate as beige paint.

Kretschmannís lack of affect throughout the entire film is almost distracting.  It fails particularly at igniting the inevitable connection Peter is supposed to eventually make with Kim.  That sterility does, however, give a much-needed counterpoint to the filmís last act, when it sinks into a heavy-handed, overplayed, schmaltz-fest.  Of course, we must see the horror and brutality that was visited upon the Gwangju populace, but itís dragged out so long and with so many melodramatic and unlikely moments threaded in, that one becomes incredulous about what weíre seeing.  We start losing characters that we know in awful, heartbreaking ways, but itís when people literally throwing themselves into the line of fire - and by line of fire, I mean, the Korean militaryís monstrous lack of scruples about murdering unarmed women and youths - to the point where the massacre, and its resulting hero moments seem overly-dramatic and set the eyes to rolling.  Even though the genesis of many of the sequences have a basis in fact, those scenes, as well as the final burst of rebellion along the Gwangju roadways, are played in such a clichť manner, that itís hard to view the climax as anything but cloying, manipulative sentimentality.  Some tragedies donít need padding.

Still, A TAXI DRIVERís ace in the hole is the fluid, feeling performance of innately watchable Song Kang-ho, who, along with his costars (sans Kretschmann), save the film from being a well-meaning pile of mush.  Had the writing and direction of the film shown Songís spine and avoidance of schmaltz, A TAXI DRIVER could have been much more than it is.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug 11th, 2017


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