I have just recently been into South Korean films lately, downloading almost every box office hit I found on the internet. One of them topping charts under the guise of a Film based on a historic event in South Korea collectively called the ‘May 18‘ uprising in Gwangju in 1980.
The film, titled A Taxi Driver (Taeksi Unjeonsa), has been shown this year on August 2, both domestically and internationally, and has topped the South Korean box office for three consecutive weekends after that. According to the film’s distributor Showbox, the total attendance of the film surpassed the 12 million mark as of September 9, becoming the tenth most-watched local film of all time in South Korea.
You might raise a brow at how a very simplistic film may have garnered huge attention domestically and internationally–and I was just as curious to this at first–but the resemblance of the fictitious events in the film to the true story of the uprising in 1980 after the assassination of late authoritarian leader, Park Chun Hee, on October 26, 1979, left a very big last impression on me that it brought me to a cycle of laughs, understanding and tears.
Song Kang-ho as Kim Man-seob
Thomas Kretschmann as Jürgen “Peter” Hinzpeter
Yoo Hae-jin as Hwang Tae-sool
Ryu Jun-yeol as Jae-sik
A Taxi driver from Seoul, accidentally gets involved in a German journalist’s reporting of the events of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, also called the Gwangju Uprising, in 1980.
The film shows South Korea in the midst of its battle for democracy against political power that clashed after the assassination of President Park Chun Hee who headed an authoritarian rule and caused an abrupt termination to the power he was trying to maintain over common people through the military.
With the loss of a leader, the democratic movement sees a window of opportunity to revive themselves and once another semester started, they formed into student unions, which led nationwide demonstrations for reforms, including an end to martial law.
General Chun Doo Hwan, however, seized military power and tried to intervene with domestic issues. He forced the Cabinet to extend martial law to the whole nation, which had previously not applied to Jeju Province. The extended martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. To enforce martial law, troops were dispatched to various parts of the country, as well, including that of Gwangju.
In the middle of all the strife happening in the country, a simple Seoul taxi driver, Kim, runs his old taxi around the city, trying to make a living out of the few money he gets from people he drives to their desired location. With this not enough to pay for his daughter’s needs and their overdue rent, Kim–desperate to make more money for them to go by–grabs the opportunity to drive a foreigner to Gwangju when he overhears a conversation between two fellow taxi drivers, saying that the foreigner will pay a large sum in exchange for a round trip ride from Seoul to Gwangju and Gwangju back to Seoul.
Hinzpeter, an international reporter who already made a name for himself while he was under a German broadcasting company and is currently based in Tokyo at that time, hears of the real strife in South Korea and wants to expose the news to the world. Due to his selfish cause, that only of an opportunistic newshound, decides to try this battle and ask someone he knew in Korea to hire him a taxi driver that is willing to get him to Gwangju to film his new content.
As if played by fate, the two of them meet unexpectedly, having not known the intention of one to the other, and embark on a journey to Gwangju, where the heat of the uprising was centered.
Kim tries to please Hinzpeter in every way he can to make sure he has the butter to his bread at the end of the day, that despite the road blocks and military on their way trying to prevent them in entering the forbidden place, he is forced to journey and bring the man to his end location. Hinzpeter, appearing as a cold and calculative man, offers Kim the cold treatment, giving little to no regard to his driver despite his efforts of trying to communicate with him and make him understand the dangers of their situation.
Upon arriving in Gwangju later on in the film, Kim and Hinzpeter will soon realize how serious was the situation inside the center of the uprising. People were still in demonstration, but what they believed to be true based on the curtailed news being shown on national tv–that no one was being hurt and in fact it was the student unions’ causing unreasonable hurt to the military force–suddenly becomes nothing but a big confusion to the two.
Gwangju appears to be a ghost town, unruly, infested by rioters, and overcome by great instability. And what shocks them as the story gradually builds up to the climax is how much lives were wasted as the military–who instead should have been protecting civilians from the strife–mercilessly kill whoever joins the demonstrations. The demonstrations that only cries for democracy, for them to be heard by people outside the prison they were in–with no doors or windows, and for the truth of what was really happening be known to the world so that they can revive the true stability of their nation which was suppressed by the power hungry who were in political position such as General Chun.
Hinzpeter and Kim’s arrival brought forth new hope–even for so little–to the people that finally there was someone willing to help them expose the truth. Greedily, Hinzpeter took the opportunity to film all the important events–the demonstrations, firings, killings and the suppression of freedom–and he almost endangers himself and the driver at several occasions.
His bold move was very impressive, but his passion was too much you couldn’t tell whether he was just too absorbed in it or too dumb to risk his life before his news even gets to the media. Sometimes he is very frustrating to watch that I often had to agree with the taxi driver’s cowardice or his own way of preservation; to make sure that he was out of the battlefield and is safe from a shot to the head.
Kim may look easily frightened by the events and killings, but being suddenly thrown in that situation anyone could have reacted the same way. A normal, sane person would act like him, especially that he is the only parent to the daughter waiting for him to come home back in Seoul. Just imagine yourself being thrown inside a den with three wild lions and you’d get what I mean.
Truly scared for the poor drivers life, I had my hands tightly gripping on the edge of my seat as I just wished for the taxi driver to leave the foreigner on his own and come back home safe.
But I wouldn’t have contested his decision when he was about to leave the foreigner, but decided to go back for him and the people fighting for their freedom in Gwangju and had one mind of making sure the foreigner and his news arrive safely back in Seoul and to Japan. He knew it was definitely a risk. He may die while carrying out his mission, but I guess–along with Hinzpeter–at that point he was finally able to relate to the people of Gwangju, the demonstrators, the prisoner of that war, and decided he couldn’t simply leave them alone while he moves to his own safe zone.
So, when he goes back, with strangers he and the foreign reporter became friends with–and had their own moments of laughter and joy with in the middle of a very dangerous, thrilling, and disturbing war between military in power and the common people who had no weapons but their voices and their pleas–they embark on a journey with braver minds and firmer resolve to uncover the truth. Kim accompanied Hinzpeter in his quest to film the lasts of his masterpiece and helped the injured protesters during one of their demonstrations to escape the scene and be attended to in the hospitals where most of them were being treated. He did these with several of the Gwangju taxi drivers that were there willing to risk their lives with him.
At the end of the film, despite the car chase that got my breath caught in my lungs as I watched without batting eyes, I was happy to see how they succeeded in their escape and Kim managed to safely bring Hinzpeter back to Seoul, down to the airport where the two of them parted.
Before concluding the story though, the film showed how Hinzpeter managed to ship off with him back to Japan the news that he had shot while in Gwangju. They buried it inside a can of cookies that they disguised easily as a parting wedding gift for the reporter. Hinzpeter asked Kim for his name and contact number as he handed him something to write on; this serving as a promise from him to make sure to come back right away and help him get his taxi fixed. He has expressed his desire to ride Kim’s taxi again, but Kim gives himself an alias instead for some reason, opting for ‘Kim Sa Bok’. A very uncommon name, which based on the film, he got off the packaging of a cigarette.
Up to now though, even after Hinzpeter’s passing in January of 2016, Kim Sa Bok’s real identity remains unknown. Many tried to uncover the truth to his identity, but no one really came forward to make a claim. Only Hinzpeter had a close encounter with the unknown, humble hero.
Over all, the film was very simplistic to the point you wouldn’t think anything deeper going on inside it–from an outsider’s perspective. But it was the kind of simple that would attack you with goosebumps as the climax builds up in the middle and reaches a conclusion at the ending. The characters were leading very ordinary lives in a very unimaginably, dangerous and disturbing moment in the dark history of South Korea. But Kim and Hinzpeter’s co-dependency with each other has lead them to great results as they learn to relate to each other and the people that had all their hopes on them. The two actors has well-played their roles that I couldn’t have allowed it be done any other way around.
The pacing of the story packed in one film is very gradual you won’t think anything was rushed. It was perfectly paced, to say the least. And albeit some differences from the true occurrence in history, this depiction of a part of the truth helps unveil some of what hadn’t been covered before by any writings or portrayals through a fictitious what if approach.
Albeit, Hinzpeter’s stubborn nature that brought most danger to him, Kim, and their comrades, I wouldn’t have changed how his character was. For the flaws in his character, and how they gradually toned down and his cold facade broke as he came to finally relate to the protagonists of his masterpiece, were what made me come to love the story. I wouldn’t have asked for this story to be made any other way.
This was just perfect.
On an end note, I just like to share a thought that came as I finished watching ‘A Taxi Driver’ — that things and people happen for a reason and we are here because we have our own purpose.