When governments are tyrannical, the first thing they do is limit or eradicate the free press so no one can hold them accountable and replace it with their own “real” news. The Taxi Driver is a drama based on such a clandestine event that marked South Korea in 1980– the Gwangju Uprising, also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, and/or, the Gwangju Democratization Movement. The regime not only banned reporting and barred reporters, it actively shut down media and hunted them so that no news of the event would reach outside the siezed city limits. But, any way you slice it, it did happened, and only one reporter was able to document it and show it to the world. Director Jang Hoon tells a story based on German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter, known as Peter, as he infiltrated the massacre that took place in the days of May 18-20 in Gwangju, South Korea, with the help of Kim Man-seob, a taxi driver from Seoul.
Peter is played by Thomas Kretschmann who, interestingly, cites his experience escaping East Germany in his early 20s as a giving him a crucial understanding to be able to deliver on his interpretation of Peter. The title character of Mr. Kim is played by Kang-ho Song who has a robust career in both theater and film. The role of the taxi driver is not only moving but also demanding since his character is the focus of the film and serves as the vehicle for the dramatization of the historical event. The character of Kim is symbolic of the everyday person living at the time who has a choice to look away or risk his or safety and bear witness to the massacre.
Jang Hoon’s vision is focused and his delivery is compelling. While the story praises the courage of Peter to tell the story of a massacre that would have otherwise been swept under the rug, the heart of the story is in Mr. Kim’s personal transformation. In Spanish the phrase, “hacer conciencia” is often translated into English as “to raise awareness” but conceptually it is very different than to simply make someone aware, or give them information they lacked. The phrase in Spanish is far more active and intentional. It may rest on the Shakespearean idea that humans are the paragon of animals, but animals nevertheless; to “hacer conciencia” is to make or create a conscience, thus implying an intellectual and emotional growth that comes with experience and compassion and from which there is no turning back. Mr. Kim’s transformation is the active transformation of a people as each of them “make conscience” and sacrifice their lives for the hope of democracy.
Through the character of Mr. Kim, Hoon balances a lighter side of existence with the stress and suffering that lives just under the surface. The balance is nicely bookended by small details that surface throughout like the memory of a food or the bow tied y Mr. Kim, first in his daughter’s hair, and later on a box of cookies. The balance between Peter and the event is also well proportioned, with Peter often being the character in the background, thus keeping the focus on the people of South Korea. Mr. Hoon’s inclusion of footage of the real Jürgen Hinzpeter in the end is both a loving gesture, and a note of gratitude because in the end, The Washington Post is right, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” when atrocities happen because no one is watching.
Opening Weekend: August 11, 2017
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