Director: Hun Jang (South Korea). Year of Release: 2017
Seoul, 1980. A taxi driver is alone in his cab, singing along to the car radio. We watch him navigate the 12 lane highway (6 lanes each direction) into the city centre. Suddenly, the road is blocked. There’s a demonstration against the new military dictatorship, and police have cordoned off the streets. The driver reverses out – and nearly knocks over a student protestor, running away from the police. He swerves and clips his wing mirror, knocking it off the car.
Kim Man-Seob is petit bourgeois through and through. He dismisses the protestors as bloody students and Communists, saying that if they don’t like this country, they should move to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for a while. Ex-army, he is fond of discipline. And yet he is not a rich man, He’s 4 months behind on his rent and is unable to replace his cab, which has over 60,000km on the clock. Although the mechanic says it needs a full servicing, he can’t afford it yet.
Meanwhile in Tokyo, the foreign journalists are meeting over a drink. One of them is new, working for the BBC. He’s just in from South Korea where he says that he’s suddenly lost touch with all his contacts, especially those in Gwang-ju. He asks what life is like in Japan. Jürgen, a German reporter, tells him that it’s comfortable – too comfortable. If a journalist is to become successful, he or she (but everyone here’s a he) needs a little discomfort.
Kim is hanging around in a café frequented by taxi drivers. When someone comes in, bragging about a very well-paid job he’s got to pick someone up at the theatre and take them to Gwang-ju. Kim slips out and drives to the theatre. He finds the familiar face of a German journalist, who has booked a cab. When asked, Kim says, of course he’s been told about the job, of course he knows how dangerous it is, of course he speaks good English. Some of these statements may not be true.
The roads to Gwang-ju are blocked by the police, but Kim is one part motivated by the need to do a good job and 99 parts by the possible financial reward. When they get into town, all hell is loose. There has been a popular uprising and the police are now taking revenge, shooting willy-nilly at anyone in their sights. The streets are thick with tear gas and the hospitals are full of bleeding people. Meanwhile the South Korean press reports a Communist uprising with few casualties.
Many of the reviews that I’ve read about A Taxi Driver have been lukewarm, saying that Kim’s development from a small businessman who believes everything that the government tells him to latent revolutionary is too one-dimensional and obvious. One review even talks of Kim’s “transformation into a political figurehead.” This would indeed be unlikely if it were anything like what happens in the film. But what we witness is something else entirely.
Kim’s increasing suspicion of the government (I think it would be too much to use the word “radicalisation”) is not linear. He clings to some old ideas while developing some new ones. What we are watching is someone trying to process something that he’d never previously considered possible – that the bastards in power might actually be lying to us. So, he helps the wounded in the hospital while repeating that this must all be part of a tragic misunderstanding.
This is where we get to the film’s great strength. It shows the chaos and confusion, making us feel that we are in the centre. Directly after we’ve watched a slightly humorous scene showing the interactions between the opportunistic taxi driver and the cold journalist, we’re suddenly in the thick of a pitched battle, where police are shooting live ammunition at people carrying stretchers. It’s hard to understand what is going on, especially if you’d not believed that this could be possible.
I mentioned earlier that Kim is petit bourgeois. This is significant if we want to understand his actions. He does not feel automatic solidarity with the protestors, who he sees as taking his customers off the streets and depriving him of a living. In the absence of any class solidarity, he has no reason to disbelieve what he reads in the newspapers. And his shift towards solidarity is only temporary. At the end, he does not join a revolutionary cell, but just carries on cab driving.
A Taxi Driver shows how a revolutionary moment affects more than just those directly affected. Even the atomised taxi drivers unite in a joint action to rescue the injured, which is based on real events, and in a high-octane car chase with the security forces, which probably isn’t. Even the young army chief on the checkpoint is allowed a brief moment of quiet rebellion. The 1980 uprising went much further than just the street battles and noble acts of sacrifice.
A Taxi Driver has been underestimated by the critics. A lesser film would have concentrated on the white saviour, but the individual actions of Jürgen, whose report informed the world about the Gwang-ju uprising, are secondary. This is much more a film about collective resistance. Scenes of a few demonstrators resisting a well-armed military and plain clothed police brutes are both breathtaking and beautiful. Then a baton hits a skull, and we are shocked out of enjoying the view.
If this film were not already a few years old, it would be a strong contender for film of the year. It’s most definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in 2022 so far.