Full disclosure. I chose to watch this film based solely on the photo above. My thought process on it wasn’t all that deep. It more or less went like this: “It’s the dad from Parasite! And he looks so happy. Clearly this is a fun film about the various high jinks of a taxi driver.” Play. Two hours later I could only wonder at how I could have possibly got it so wrong. That being said, I’ve never been so happy for false advertising in my life.
A Taxi Driver is indeed a film starring Song Hang-ho, the actor who also starred in Parasite, so at least I was right on that count. And yes, he is playing the titular taxi driver, but unlike the poster, he is rarely smiling in the film, and high jinks are in short supply. Instead, this film tells the story of a pivotal moment in recent Korean history, the Gwangju Massacre. It’s an event that I knew nothing about until watching this film, and certainly wasn’t expecting based on the photo above. But that’s the joy of going into a film blind. You never know what film you’re going to get. In this case, I got a truly fantastic film. Heart-wrenching, but fantastic.
A Taxi Driver tells the story of a Seoul taxi driver who is hired by a German reporter to drive him to the city of Gwangju for the day in May of 1980. This film is based on the life of Jürgen Hinzpeter, who in real life, was one of the few foreign reporters who managed to get into Gwangju and film footage of the atrocities that were happening in the city. It is estimated that 2,000 died in the massacre when government troops fired on the people protesting for democracy, and Hinzpeter’s reporting helped bring international attention to what happened in Gwangju.
The taxi driver, known only as Kim Sa-bok, managed to get Hinzpeter in and out of the city, despite it being closed off by the military, and he later helped Hinzpeter smuggle the footage out of the country in cookie tins. Interestingly, it is revealed at the end of the film that Hinzpeter tried many times to find Kim Sa-bok again, but was never able to, and at the time of filming, the identity of the taxi driver was still unknown. It wasn’t until after the film was released in 2017, and the subsequent attention its success brought, that Kim Sa-bok’s son came forward to identify his father. Sadly, his father was revealed to have passed away in 1984, having never been reunited with Hinzpeter.
A Taxi Driver may not have been the film I was expecting when I hit ‘play’, but I’m so glad that I did. Everyone who knows me well knows that I love history, and I spent the majority of this film wondering how it was that I knew so little about Korea’s history. I have since spent hours rectifying that, and while I am by no means an expert now, I’ve certainly learned a lot. And all because of a smiling man’s face on a movie poster.
One last side note. I loved Song Kang-ho’s performance in Parasite, but after watching this film, I am convinced that he is the best actor working in Korea today. It’s an absolutely stunning performance.
Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!