At first amusing then heartbreaking but riveting throughout its runtime, A Taxi Driver brings an infamous incident from South Korean history to cinematic life in an upsetting, hard-hitting & powerfully moving manner. Expertly directed from start to finish, the film also benefits immensely from another rousing performance by the ever-reliable Song Kang-ho.
The story follows a Seoul taxi driver in dire need of money when he comes across a generous offer of 100,000 won if he chooses to drive a foreign passenger to a small town. Taking the job without being aware that his customer is a German journalist with a hidden agenda, he finds himself accidentally involved in the commuter’s reporting of the events unfolding in that town.
Directed by Jang Hoon, the film takes its time to pave the necessary groundwork before bringing the heavy elements into the narrative. All the relevant characters are properly introduced and their arcs exhibit a compelling trajectory that develops gradually as plot progresses. Period detailing is notable but what stands out most is the careful attention with which its characters & their journey is illustrated.
The first act carries a very lighthearted vibe, offering plenty of laughs but with hints of darker things to come. Both the outsiders have selfish reasons for heading to Gwangju. Their bond at first is cold & born out of necessity, and it’s only after they witness the brutality perpetrated by the military that they become more invested in the locals’ lives, realise their role in the struggle, and make it their mission to bring the incident to world’s attention.
Despite being based on a true event, A Taxi Driver is a character-driven story. And the director’s confidence plus his unhurried approach in capturing all the events is even more admirable. Gwangju’s unrestful atmosphere is grim, chaotic & unsettling as it should be but there are also few calm, soothing moments to be found amid the terror, which adds a realistic touch to the whole scenario. When things get ugly, it’s disturbing & harrowing to watch, for it isn’t toned down at all.
Technical aspects are no slouch, for the period set pieces do evoke the timeline its story is set in. Camera switches gear as per the requirements of the scene but its manoeuvring is smooth throughout. Adding more texture to the images is excellent colour grading & bright lighting. Its 137 minutes runtime is only slightly felt near the end but for the most part, the film is smartly paced & finely edited. Music plays its complementary role quite effectively and manages to elevate many scenes with its stirring tracks.
Coming to the performances, A Taxi Driver features a committed cast in Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yoo Hae-jin, Ryu Jun-yeol & others, and everyone does a fabulous job with the characters they play. Song effortlessly steals the show with yet another emotionally captivating showcase that takes the viewers through a whirlwind of emotions. Kretschmann’s work is equally noteworthy, and the change his character undergoes is well articulated by the German actor. And the supporting cast contributes with flavourful inputs, leaving nothing to complain about.
On an overall scale, A Taxi Driver is a fascinating slice of historical filmmaking that keeps its characters at the forefront of the real-life event at all times and delivers an engaging, satisfying & thought-provoking experience. By putting more emphasis on the characters, giving them sufficient depth, identities & well-defined emotional arcs, and capturing the Gwangju Uprising through their eyes, the film allows the viewers to invest in their predicament more readily, while the strong performances by Song & Kretschmann as well as their deepening chemistry makes the ride absolutely worth your time & money. One of the best films of 2017 that’s well-deserving of a broader audience, A Taxi Driver comes highly recommended.