Shamrockmom’s review of “A Taxi Driver”–An ordinary man’s extraordinary place in history

A/N: I recently re-activated my Kakao account, so if you feel like sending me a message, my user name is “Shamrockmom”.

Things are getting hectic for Shamrockmom. Next week I will start a college course to add to my dental hygiene license and give me options to work in some different environments, like nursing homes or drug rehab facilities. I’m not quitting my day job, but it’s time to expand my horizons. The program is expensive–it costs more than all of my dental hygiene school and my prerequisites did back in the day, and it’s time-consuming. I have to take several days off work over the next 4 months and go to school on some Saturdays. More importantly–I have to curtail my upcoming KCON adventure this year to a single day because the program starts on the Friday and Saturday of KCON, so I can only go on Sunday! Arrrgh! I hate it when being a responsible adult interferes with my fun.

And I will have to miss another event I love which is also on the same Saturday: Hot Import Nights

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Other women would be bored to tears, but Shamrockmom thinks these cars are like works of art. Heh, some of the guys here are like works of art too! Photo as credited.

HIN is the yearly car show in LA where Shamrockmom goes to gawk at hot men and hot cars, while the hot men gawk at the cute young ladies running around in micro-mini skirts, stiletto heels, and tons of makeup! Heh, I can always dream, right?! See one of my ‘official’ dreams below:

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I keep waiting for this scene to happen in the parking garage at my work! I’d take off late one afternoon with Cha Seung Won in his Maserati and never come back 🙂 Photo as credited.

Last week, a patient who has known me for many years slipped me two movie tickets, because she felt bad I never get to take a vacation. (It’s true. I’ve never taken a vacation since I had kids.) Lucky for me, the tickets were full price unrestricted tickets for the movie theater chain that has a theater in Irvine. It gets some (but not all) of the Kmovies that come to the LA/OC area. I was even luckier that the Irvine theater was showing “A Taxi Driver” the weekend it opened here in the US! I figured I’d better hustle down and see it–and try to cram in some fun before I have to work hard!

The shopping center that the theater is in across from the University is undergoing a massive renovation since I was there to watch “Like for Likes” in early 2016. That’s a good thing–it was looking pretty dated. The theater has also had some minor upgrades– fresh carpeting, improved lighting, and a thorough cleaning. It’s not quite up to the level of the CGV theater in Buena Park, but it’s definitely in better shape now. I hope more comfortable seating and a state-of-the-art sound system is on the agenda! This time the theater was about 3/4 full for an early Saturday evening show, unlike the sparsely attended “Like for Likes”. Even more surprising–the audience was probably 70% non-Asian. Whoa! I’m so used to being the only non-Asian person in the theater. This is awesome. I hope a more diverse audience means more Kmovies will be shown locally–and in more theaters too. I have always thought if the American audience can get past the subtitle issue and the movies were shown in more locations, Kmovies would be very popular. Also of interest–the majority of attendees were at least my age or older. Translation: They are probably old enough to remember this event when it actually happened. I had just turned 16, but I do remember it a little bit. I definitely was more interested in pursuing a young man with a sexy brain than paying close attention to the news from South Korea in 1980.

Here are the movie posters–Please forgive any errors with my rough translations of the top quotes. My Korean language learning will always be a work in progress:

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“Customer, let’s go. This taxi is going where you are going.”

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“I promise, I will tell the truth”

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“In May of 1980, a taxi driver went to Gwangju”

I knew I had to see “A Taxi Driver” from the moment I saw the trailer about six weeks ago. I also knew that I’d have strong emotions after seeing it. Because of the work my father did over in Korea during the early 1980’s, I was much more interested in this movie than the average viewer.

I’ll give the no-spoiler review first before I move on to more specific details:

Song Kang Ho carries this film about an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances who finds out that everything he hears on the TV news or reads in the paper is not necessarily the way it’s portrayed. His basic decency and soft heart win out again and again in situations big and small. He may look like a simple taxi driver, but he’s resourceful, smart and a loving single father to his daughter. Although not completely free of dramatic fabrication, “A Taxi Driver” sticks close to the facts about the “Gwangju Uprising” in 1980 and the fight for democracy in South Korea. A whole generation has grown up since then and needs to see this film so the events are not forgotten. This is easily the best Kmovie I’ve seen to date. Plenty of suspense and drama, with a few lighter moments of comedy and a fantastic car chase scene are all included. At a running time of over 2 hours, I didn’t check my phone even once to look at the clock. Without going over the top in terms of violence or maudlin scenes of death and destruction, this movie keeps a balance and delivers the emotional impact without leaving the viewer feeling manipulated. This is a can’t-miss movie for anyone who wants to be educated about recent Korean history.

Here is the English subbed trailer:

More details and spoilers about the movie:

Note–screencaps unless otherwise credited are from the trailer.

In May of 1980, widower Kim Man Seop (Song Kang Ho) is a beleaguered taxi driver in Seoul. His second job is being a single father to his 11-year-old daughter. His daughter is no pushover–she regularly smacks the bratty and smug little neighbor boy who is the son of the landlady. KMS is 4 months behind on his rent…to the tune of about W100,000. The ahjumma landlady isn’t shy about asking him for the rent, but the landlady’s husband is KMS’s friend, so he asks his friend to borrow the money! It’s clear that he’s not a deadbeat, but that his compassionate heart keeps him in a perpetually indebted state. He gives a young struggling student a reduced fare, and a pregnant woman and her husband get a free ride to the hospital in his taxi after the soon-to-be father forgot his wallet. KMS hears the news on the TV and radio about the political unrest in Gwangju, but he’s not really paying attention–the college age pro-democracy protesters are simply a nuisance to him. Besides, doesn’t the newscaster say they are backed by the Commies to the North? Ehh…just another hassle in his day.

Side note: The opening sequences that showed Seoul as it probably looked in the early ’80’s were fascinating to me since my father spent a great deal of time in Seoul on business from late 1980 through 1984. I felt like I got to finally see what Seoul looked like through his eyes, versus the 2017 version I see in dramas.

Meanwhile, German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) is meeting with some Korean reporters in Tokyo. The movie refers to his name only as Peter; I’m not sure why. He’s heard from the Korean and Japanese reporters that there is political unrest in Gwangju, but the authorities have cut phone service and are heavily censoring the press and TV coverage. JH wants the scoop badly enough to pose as a Christian missionary (what a delicious detail!) and he wangles his way past the authorities at Gimpo Airport to get into the country. He meets up with his Korean contact in Seoul who pleads with him to get the real ground level story and confirm how the military is quashing the pro-democracy protesters–and the most important thing–get the video footage out for the world to see.

While eating lunch with some other taxi drivers, KMS hears another driver bragging about a huge fare he’s about to get–it involves taking a foreigner to Gwangju (about 268 km, or 166 miles one way) and back for the princely sum of  W100,000. In 1980, W100,000 was about $159 USD. Let’s inflation-adjust the numbers for 2017:  W100,000 in 1980 would be equivalent to W487,035 today or about $426 USD (Source: fxtop.com) That’s a heckuva taxi fare! Knowing this would get him out of debt in one fell swoop, KMS bails out of the restaurant and starts looking around for this foreigner. He quickly finds Hinzpeter and using his limited English skills from his long-ago days as a truck driver in Saudi Arabia, he convinces JH that he’s the right driver to take him to Gwangju and back.

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They set off for Gwangju. JH has no idea how far it is (it’s about a 3 1/2 hour drive) and there’s a lot of difficulties as the two men try to communicate–one with limited English and one with literally no Korean skills.

The military has blocked off the main road to Gwangju, so KMS tries to see if a local elderly farmer can provide him with an alternate route:

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He addresses the man as “Eorushin” (어르신), a more formal and antiquated word for Elder.

They take KMS’s lime green Kia Brisa taxi (my best guess, see this link for details) on some dirt roads and encounter another blockade, but they use the ruse that Hinzpeter is an important foreign businessman and needs to get to Gwangju. The army guys let them go, and they get into the city–which already looks like a war zone. It becomes abundantly clear that they are onto something big. KMS and JH encounter a group of college age young men riding around in a truck trying to get their friend medical care for a minor injury. As pro-democracy protesters, they are beyond thrilled to meet a foreign reporter. JH starts filming and then finds out that one of the boys–Jae Shik (Ryu Joon Yeol) has high-level English skills and can translate.

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Ryu Joon Yeol’s English skills are impressive, and he brings the right mix of youthful innocence and righteous determination to his character. Credit to HanCinema.com

The young men promise to take JH around Gwangju if he will get the truth out. Jae Shik is immediately pressed into interpreting service. Bit by bit, KMS starts to figure out that what he’s heard on the TV and radio news is far different than what he sees the students and others in Gwangju are protesting about. Could it be that perhaps the narrative he’s been hearing is not the correct one?

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Credit to themoviewaffler.com

At first, KMS just wants to get back to Seoul, but his taxi breaks down and he has to stay in Gwangju overnight because of the curfew. While a mechanic repairs his taxi, KMS, Jae Shik and JH have dinner with a local taxi driver, his wife, and their young son. KMS frets that he can’t call his daughter in Seoul and tell her he’s okay and have the neighbor/landlady look after her, but all the phone lines into Gwangju have been cut for days.

The dinner sequence is sort of the humorous lull before the storm as Jae Shik sings and plays his ‘air guitar’, and JH gets a taste of real homemade kimchi. (he eats it but then drinks down an entire bowl of soup to put out the fire, lol!)

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Eating the rice should help combat the spicy kimchi.

I had to laugh at the kimchi scene because the local Korean fusion food restaurants have the weakest, mildest kimchi you can imagine. I can’t even believe they have the nerve to call it kimchi! Now don’t get me wrong–if it’s so spicy I can’t eat it, that’s not good either! I am spoiled though because now I know how to make my own kimchi at home and it’s juuuust right in the heat department. (Another fallout from LIDD!) It’s easy too. Trust me, if I can make kimchi, anyone can. Don’t be fooled by the prevailing wisdom of “making kimchi is difficult, complicated and time-consuming”. It can be easily integrated into an afternoon of Kdrama viewing. (link to awesome Kimchi recipe here)

After hearing gunshots and watching the local television station go up in flames, JH decides it’s time to start filming again. JS and KMS go with him into the middle of the protests.

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This photo was taken by Jurgen Hinzpeter in Gwangju. Photo as credited.

KMS watches as the soldiers open fire on the peacefully demonstrating citizens and then round up more demonstrators, strip them to their underwear and proceed to beat and torture them–before executing them and throwing the bodies in the rice fields. I think the modern (slang) word I am looking for here is “woke“.  KMS might have been sleepwalking through life and not paying attention to the situation going on around him, but he’s awake now. His previous beliefs that the protesters are a just a bunch of hooligans trying to stir up trouble or that the military is always right is not what he is seeing here. His reality has been permanently changed, and to his credit, he embraces it. His sense of compassion and decency (which was well established in the first part of the movie) will allow him to do no less. KMS decides to help get JH and the film footage out of Gwangju and back to Germany where it will be aired to the rest of the world. KMS has to balance this with the fact that if he fails in this mission and is killed, his daughter will be orphaned. He’s very determined to get back to the daughter he loves so much–he even bought her a pair of cute shoes while killing time in Gwangju. I also think he’s started to consider what sort of society his daughter is going to inhabit as she grows up, and maybe it’s not all “Roses and Disneyland” as we say here at Shamrockmom’s house!

The last third of the movie includes a harrowing foot chase scene through the back alleys of Gwangju, as by this time there are plainclothes military leaders looking for a foreigner reporter and a “Seoul Taxi”. The soldiers are like zombies as their gas masks and riot helmet cover their face while they gun down their fellow citizens. (These scenes are very intense.) Even when the citizens wave a white flag in front of the soldiers so they can rescue the injured, the soldiers shoot them mercilessly. The higher-ups in the military command are scary and ruthless. The main plainclothes military guy reminded me of the crazy father in “City Hunter”.

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These guys are dead serious.

JH and KMS manage to escape from Gwangju with another bogus story and a whole lotta luck, as a guard at a checkpoint sees the license plates on the car have been switched from Seoul to Gwangju but lets them pass anyway. When the plainclothes military leaders give chase in their black Jeeps, the taxi drivers of Gwangju band together to make sure that KMS and JH get out of town, as they sacrifice their lives and their cars to make sure JH, KMS, and the precious videos are able to leave Gwangju. The ingenuity of the taxi drivers to allow the escape makes for a wonderfully unique car chase scene.

At the very end of the movie, there is extremely moving footage of an interview Jurgen Hinzpeter did a few months before his death in January of 2016. (There is a memorial in Gwangju to Jurgen Hinzpeter, as he wished to be buried there.)

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Credit to newyorktimes.com

In both the movie and in RL, JH asked the taxi driver for his name and phone number so he could get his bosses back in Germany to reimburse KMS for the taxi–it was riddled with bullet holes, broken windows and major body damage after the escape from Gwangju. In addition, the movie mentioned that the taxi already had 600,000 km (382,000 miles) on the odometer.

Side Note: Any car that can run for 300,000 miles or more up is beyond impressive. I only got 238,000 miles on my old 2001 Honda Accord before it broke down and the repairs were more than the car was worth. My daughter had a boyfriend who drove a 1984 Honda Prelude with 475,000 total miles on it; the original engine was replaced at 285,000 miles. I think it speaks to the durability, quality and easy repairability of the late 70’s/early 80’s Asian cars like Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and Datsun. Shamrockmom is a big fan of Classic Japanese autos, and even if I can’t get to Hot Import Nights, I’ll try and go to the Japanese Classic Car Show in September.

However, the RL taxi driver put down a fake name and number and gave it to JH. The RL taxi driver has never been found, even though Hinzpeter went back to Seoul many times to try and find him. (I believe the movie producers looked high and low for him as well.) I don’t blame the taxi driver for keeping his identity a secret–maybe even to the grave. The immediate consequences would have been devastating for his little daughter, as he would probably have been jailed, tortured and/or executed by the SK government in power during the early ’80’s. Later on, the fame and adulation would have been overwhelming. I’m surprised a neighbor, relative or acquaintance hasn’t come forward and spilled the beans–but I’m okay with that. Sometimes it’s best to keep things like this under wraps, and the fewer people that know, the better.

Update August 2020: The taxi driver has been found.

I also want to add in that Thomas Kretschmann was born in East Germany when it was under communist control. He escaped to West Germany in 1981 when he was 19, with only a passport and the equivalent of $100 in his pocket. He credits his escape from East Germany with helping his acting in “A Taxi Driver”. To illustrate how lucky Thomas Kretschmann was, consider that over 1000 people died between 1961 and 1989 trying to leave communist controlled East Germany.

A couple of personal thoughts about the movie:

I think the thing that struck me the most while I watched “A Taxi Driver” was that the vast majority of the populace who were demonstrating in Gwangju were unarmed. I know it is difficult for the average SK citizen to possess a gun (excellent if somewhat heated discussion about guns in SK at “Ask a Korean“) but all I could think of was that the military might have been more reluctant to open fire on a well-armed citizenry. It’s not like nearly every Korean man hasn’t been through two years in the military and learned how to shoot a gun, right? Bringing a knife, rock or a brick to a gunfight is a sure way to die. As a US citizen, I certainly appreciate my Second Amendment rights more after seeing this movie. It can be the only thing that stands between the people and a tyrannical government. I firmly believe that every adult (yes, both men and women) should have training on how to handle a gun in a correct manner, including keeping it locked up and away from children/most teens/the mentally unstable, and how to regularly hit what you aim at. In RL, the pro-democracy forces in Gwangju raided a stash of automatic weapons and held the government soldiers at bay for a few days until military reinforcements arrived and they were subsequently defeated.

I also considered that the demographic of the protesters was typically shown as the young men and women, maybe 18-25. Older folks who might own a home or business, and have responsibilities like a spouse or children might be more reluctant to get involved, even if they feel the cause is a good one. However, in Gwangju, many taxi drivers who were probably family breadwinners selflessly used their vehicles to shield protesters, ferry the injured to hospitals, and block troops after witnessing the brutality of the soldiers toward the public. In the movie, this is made very clear–elders, women, and children are beaten and shot point-blank by the soldiers on the street. I believe that the censorship issues back then have been partially mitigated by the availability of the internet today: nearly everyone has a cell phone and can document what is going on in real time whether through social media or uploading video.

Along with “Battleship Island”, “A Taxi Driver” is in one of the widest Kmovie releases in the US. I hope that you take the time to see this great movie if it is playing close to you.

2 thoughts on “Shamrockmom’s review of “A Taxi Driver”–An ordinary man’s extraordinary place in history

  1. Oh Shamrockmom, I’ve just read your post, at 3:30 am in the morning, and decided to respond. Just think of the fun we’re going to have together being study buddies again😊 While you won’t be able to watch your Korean Novelas, I’m going to have to put that tall cool drink of water, Tom Sellek hemself, on the bad burners in “Blue Bloods”. See you soon!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good gracious, what are you doing at 3:30 in the morning reading my drivel?! You need a cold drink of water for that hot flash and go back to sleep! I’m bringing my laptop, and I plan to get you hooked on Kdramas….it’s another one of my life’s goals! I can’t let my best study buddy miss out! Don’t you want to experience the joy of sitting through multiple hour long episodes so you can squeal over *one* kiss scene?!

      Like

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