K-Movie Review: Watching Gwangju Democratization Movement through the Eyes of Taxi Driver in the Movie ‘A Taxi Driver’

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History in Korean Movies

As a product of art, a movie does not only portray appealing and superficial matters, but also critical and influential topics which are often life-threatening for people who are directly involved. It is considered a practical tool to understand contexts compared to the books which are more multifaceted and complex or paintings that have limited space. Historical films such as Schlinder’s List, Titanic, and Saving Private Ryan have been acknowledged as the fictional works which are based on real-life events. On the other hand, South Korean movies that display history as its aspect mostly tell about the past dynasties ruling the country, while the old silent films, such as Arirang (1926) and The Ownerless Ferry Boat (1932) comprising subtle political and nationalistic messages, have established their position as two of the most important historical films in South Korea.

General Information About A Taxi Driver

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In the sections below, Channel-Korea has summed up all the information about A Taxi Driver, a slice-of-life film that took a distinctive approach to the turning point of South Korean history, the Gwangju Uprising, as its central focus. The aspects that will be discussed are its synopsis, characters, critic reviews, and reasons why you definitely have to watch this marvelous work which was released in the summer of 2017.

A Private Taxi Driver Who Becomes The Unsung Hero of History

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Set in 1980, Kim Man-seob is a single father with an eleven-year-old daughter, who works as a Seoul taxi driver. He barely survives every day as the fare he receives from the customers hardly covers his life expense. One day Man-seob overhears another taxi driver talking about a foreign client who has booked a one-day trip worth KRW 100,000. Hearing that the fee matches to the cost of his rent, Man-seob rushed off to steal the client who is later known as Jürgen “Peter” Hinzpeter, a German journalist who desires to report on the increasing protesters in Gwangju after hearing his fellow reporters in Japan about the matter. He successfully comes to South Korea by pretending to be a missionary as the country had prohibited foreign reporters due to the censorship.

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Man-seob and Peter find out that the entrance to Gwangju has been blocked and strictly guarded by the soldiers. At first, Man-seob tries to persuade Peter to go back to Seoul. However, Peter refuses, saying that he will not pay the fare unless they arrive in Gwangju. They are able to enter the city after lying to the soldiers that Peter is a businessman who has to get important documents. The two men later witness the quiet and messy state of Gwangju, which Man-seob believed was caused by the rebellious students.

A pickup truck full of college students stops in front of their taxi after one of the students sees the camera held by Peter. The leader, named Yong-pyo, tells Jae-sik, one of the crew members, to speak to Peter because of his skill in English. Man-seob is told to follow the pickup truck as he joins the students, about which he feels reluctant because he is afraid of his taxi getting damaged in the riot. However, he feels pitiful seeing an old woman wandering in the street, looking for her son. Man-seob accompanies her to the hospital, leading their meeting to the son who turns out to be Yong-pyo, who has suffered minor injuries.

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Man-seob then meets Peter and other college students. They scold Man-seob for his selfishness and tell Peter to not pay Man-seob until he fulfills his job on the trip. Due to the pressure, Man-seob finally agrees to take Peter and Jae-sik, who becomes the translator, through the city. They are greeted by the protesters and receive food and gifts. The brutal riots and scenes of soldiers beating protesters are being recorded by Peter. Unfortunately, the plainclothed Defense Security Command (DSC) officers see him filming and go to arrest him. In addition, Man-seob’s taxi breaks down, but thankfully, one of the local taxi drivers Tae-soo helps them and tow the taxi to his shop for repair, as well as provide food and rest for the night.

After having dinner and a brief chat with Tae-sool’s family, Man-seob, Peter, and Jae-sik hear that the local television station, MBC, has been bombed. They head to the location and Peter films the chaos where the officers once again spot him among the protesters. The three men are chased and pinned down in a building. Jae-sik is captured by the soldiers but he doesn’t give up and tells Peter to share the footage with the world, whereas Man-seob is attacked by the leader of the DSC who accuses him of being a communist.

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Peter later rescues Man-seob and they run back to Tae-sool’s house. Will Kim Man-seob fulfill his promise to Peter to accompany him to Gimpo Airport after the horrifying and sickening events that he witnessed as an outsider? The viewers are able to find out as they watch A Taxi Driver to the end that is concluded by the footage of the real Jürgen Hinzpeter, who was still longing to be reunited with the taxi driver, shortly before he died in 2016.

Characters in A Taxi Driver

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A Taxi Driver focuses on two pivotal characters, actor Song Kang-ho, who previously starred in the famous movies Memories of Murder, The Host, and Snowpiercer, acting as Kim Man-seob, a taxi driver and single father with a daughter who has no interest in political issues. What he is focused on is to earn as much money as possible in order to survive with his daughter. Kim Man-seob is the fictional version of the real-life taxi driver Kim Sa-bok, who remained out of the public eye until the release of the movie. The German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who is popularly known for his roles in King Kong and Captain America: The Winter Soldier played the role of Jürgen Hinzpeter, a fictional character based on the real-life German journalist with the same name. He goes to Gwangju because he feels challenged and thinks that Japan, the country he resided in previously, is too comfortable for his career. Later on, he reports on the Gwangju Uprising with not only a sense of pride as a journalist but also as a human who witnessed horrendous tragedy before his eyes.

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The supporting characters who assist the two main characters of A Taxi Driver also cannot be forgotten. Veteran actor Yoo Hae-jin played as Hwang Tae-sool, a Gwangju taxi driver who is ready to help anyone he meets, even though it could cost him his own life. On the other hand, rising actor Ryu Jun-yeol played as Gu Jae-sik, a university student who knows English. He is aspiring to be a singer and is planning to join a song contest after the uprising ends. Notably, other actors and actresses, such as Park Hyuk-kwon, Yoo Eun-mi, Choi Gwi-hwa, Lee Jeong-eun, Ko Chang-seok, Jeon Hye-jin, and Jung Jin-young also take part in A Taxi Driver as the people around Kim Man-seob and Peter.

Critic Reviews of A Taxi Driver

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Reportedly, A Taxi Driver received an average rating of 9 and a CGV Golden Egg score of 98 percent on various advance sales websites. The film has been getting good response and word-of-mouth which led millions of tickets to be sold for a short period of time. The review website Rotten Tomatoes gives A Taxi Driver 96% based on 24 reviews, with an average audience score of 90%, rated by 1,459 users. On the other hand, the review site Metacritic has a score of 69 out of 100, based on 7 critics, indicated as ‘generally favorable reviews.’

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Various film critics and reporters have shared their thoughts about A Taxi Driver. Sheri Linden, of The Hollywood Reporter, described the movie as the depiction of a symbiotic relationship between foreign correspondents and locals which is delivered in unexpected and wonderfully satisfying ways that are rewardingly unrushed. Similarly, Maggie Lee, of Variety, stated that the development of co-dependency between the two lead actors heightened during the escalating violence. Their friendship was not drastically changed overnight as Hinzpeter still maintained his stiff composure after gaining affection for the democracy fighters in Gwangju. Even so, the audiences of A Taxi Driver will be moved when the final parting between Hinzpeter and Kim Man-seob occurs because they now relate to each other as equals.

5 Reasons You Have to Watch A Taxi Driver

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  1. A Taxi Driver has hit many records. The film becomes the first Korean movie to attract 10 million viewers in 2017. It already surpassed 1 million viewers within two days of its release and increased a million viewers each day for a week. In addition, A Taxi Driver has been honored with many awards, such as the Best Film and Best Readers’ Jury Award on Buil Film Awards, Best Film and Best Planning on Grand Bell Awards, and Best of Global Panorama Sidebar at the Portland International Film Awards, as well as being nominated at other prestigious award shows. Certainly, these records prove that A Taxi Driver is worth watching because many viewers, be it the citizens of South Korea or overseas audiences, are able to relate with the story told in the movie, don’t you agree, dear readers?
  2. A Taxi Driver is played by actors and actresses with lengthy work experience. Popular names, such as Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yoo Hae-jin, and Ryu Jun-yeol, as well as the special appearance of veteran actors Jung Jin-young and Ko Chang-seok are definitely one of the factors that make A Taxi Driver able to be classified as an impressive piece of work.
  3. Although based on a true story, A Taxi Driver is still considered a work of fiction. Contrary to the film, the real-life version of Kim Man-seob is actually named Kim Sa-bok (which is used as the fake name in the movie). In addition, the child of the real-life Kim Man-seob is a boy, not a girl. In an interview with a media outlet, Kim Sa-bok’s son, Kim Seung-pil, shared that his father had a long-standing relationship with Hinzpeter since 1975, very different to what has been shown in the movie as Kim Man-seob stole another taxi driver’s customer in order to earn a fare. He also stated that Kim Sa-bok died four years after the Gwangju Uprising due to liver cancer, unable to reunite with Jürgen Hinzpeter, who was looking for him years after he got an award for his report on the tragedy. Though the film portrayed a different situation compared to the actual events, A Taxi Driver still expresses the same message: that journalism has the strong power to revolutionize history.
  4. The viewers of A Taxi Driver are able to see the powerful solidarity of the citizens in South Korea, specifically the city of Gwangju. Just like in the movie, thousands of people protested in the streets against the military soldiers who fired, killed, raped, and beat the citizens without a reason. After years have passed, it was finally revealed that the fifth president Chun Doo-hwan was the one who initiated the events before his official appointment as the head of the country, leading a successful military coup of the previous South Korean government by Park Chung-hee.
  5. Watching A Taxi Driver, makes the viewers able to get a different perspective regarding the Gwangju Uprising. Instead of stressing on the serious tone, A Taxi Driver emphasized the lighter vibe through the viewpoint of a figure who at first was an outsider but later got involved in the events, becoming the hero who is hardly noticed or praised for his great achievement. Undoubtedly, the audiences are informed about the Gwangju catastrophe and the democracy journey in South Korea very well and still get entertained by the other aspects of the film.