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(Movie Review) A Taxi Driver: Gwangju Uprising seen from eyes of outsiders

All Headlines 15:51 July 14, 2017

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, July 14 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean historical drama "A Taxi Driver" opens with Seoul taxi driver Kim Man-seop (Song Kang-ho) hilariously singing along with an iconic popular song of the '80s behind the wheel. It's May 1980, several days before the bloody crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul.

Man-seop lives in a small rented home with his 11-year-old daughter after being widowed. He is a commoner in the working class who cares only about his family's livelihood, uninterested in political issues. He fumes at a traffic jam caused by anti-government rallies by "thoughtless" university students rather than the dictatorship of the then authoritarian government led by President Chun Doo-hwan.

This photo released by Showbox is a scene from "A Taxi Driver." (Yonhap)

One day, he "wins" the chance to pick up a German reporter who introduces himself just as "Peter" and take him to Gwangju for a large amount of cash, without knowing what is going on there. Peter or Jurgen Hinzpeter is an Asian correspondent for the German public broadcasting company ARD-NDR who flew into Korea to cover the Gwangju uprising.

In Gwangju, they meet a naive university student named Jae-sik (Ryu Jun-yeol) and a kind-hearted local taxi driver Tae-sul (Yoo Hae-jin). But Man-seop soon falls into shock after witnessing the horrors of the massacre. For those unfamiliar with Korean history, the cruel crackdown left hundreds of people dead or missing.

The film sees the historical tragedy from the perspective of two outsiders -- the taxi driver from Seoul and the German reporter -- with no ideological bias. That's how it stands out from all preceding films about the Gwangju Uprising.

This photo released by Showbox is a scene from "A Taxi Driver." (Yonhap)

Shining here is director Jang Hoon's talent in calmly depicting painful chapters of modern and contemporary Korean history through the stories of people who underwent the eras in his previous works like "Secret Reunion" (2009) and "The Front Line" (2011). He cleverly allows viewers to follow subtle changes in Man-seop's attitude from an "outsider" to an "insider" of Gwangju's tragedy.

The movie shows that those who rose up against the military regime were no heroes but just ordinary people with common sense and respect for others like Tae-sul, Jae-sik and Man-seop.

It is based on the true story of late German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter who filmed and reported on the Gwangju massacre, sharing it all over the world.

But the movie never stumbles over the weight of history. It goes its own way, adding devices from commercial films like humor and a car chase.

This photo released by Showbox is a scene from "A Taxi Driver." (Yonhap)

Song Kang-ho's performance is top-notch, especially when he, as Man-seop, reveals his complex emotions while humming a hit song in tears on his way back to Seoul, leaving Hinzpeter in Gwangju. Also good: Renowned German actor Thomas Kretschmann who was featured in the Roman Polanski film "The Pianist" as Hizpeter; Yoo Hae-jin as the Gwangju taxi driver; and Ryu Joon-ryol as the Gwangju college student.

But much of the first half of the film dwells on Man-seop's character and situation through many anecdotes. These scenes add emotional texture to the tale, but little suspense. Some climax scenes that induce emotional overflow -- as many Korean films do -- is another shortcoming.

"A Taxi Driver" is set to open in local theaters on Aug. 2.

This photo released by Showbox is a scene from "A Taxi Driver." (Yonhap)


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