“A Taxi Driver” -a retelling of History through the cinemascope

The surge of South Korean cinema

It has been possible for me to come across the movie A Taxi Driver due to the recent surge of South Korean cinema worldwide. With Parasite receiving an Oscar in 2019, more film enthusiasts have turned their attention to international cinema. Priorly, movies outside of Europe and North America were not as popular, thanks to the Academy Awards. For they kept obscuring movies around the globe from the masses. As the director of Parasite, noted in his award-reception speech:

Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Bong Joon-ho, Golden Globe Awards

The recent surge of international media, especially from East Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, has exposed viewers to a plethora of styles. It is true that they have become varying sources of entertainment. However, the light should be shed on how they have challenged the domination of a homogenous style of film-making propagated by the West. This has been possible because of the multiple perspectives and approaches to the art of film-making. This, in turn, is due to the varieties in tradition and cultural beliefs in the East.

Not only are such cultural variations vital to the film-making process, but they also contribute largely to the social lives prevalent in these countries. Moreover, these cultural variations largely determine the reception of now-universal ideas of politics(democracy, communism), sports(basketball and football), and arts, among many others. Due to this, it becomes difficult and often superficial to explain movements in the East along the lines of Western understanding, and vice versa.

Cultural merit walks hand in hand with cultural baggage in determining the social lives of countries, often invisible to armchair commentators.

The emotive core of South Korean cinema

A Taxi driver(2017)
A Taxi driver(2017)

South Korean politics form the underlying core of A Taxi Driver. If summarized briefly, it is a story about a taxi driver from Seoul. Concerned more with his business than national politics, he has to confront the adversities of the contemporary political situation.

However, that would only be a vague attempt of summarizing this film. Thus, it is important to dive into a more detailed explanation.

Primarily, it should be highlighted that almost every South Korean movie, irrespective of genre, has an emotional intensity that can hardly be overlooked. Even a horror or action movie, for instance, would have this undeniably strong focus on the emotive qualities that, I, personally, find lacking in their Western counterparts. Compare a movie like Resident Evil to the Korean zombie-flick, Train to Busan, for example, and you will know what I mean.

One possible explanation for this would be the dominant role that family relations play in the East, as compared to individualism in the West. This, however, is not a generic assumption. It does not negate either the prevalence of familial relationships entirely in the West or that of individualism in the East.

Whatever of the two be the focus, the intense emotional backdrop in South Korean movies soar higher than most visual media in the West. Even films focusing more on individualism like I Saw the Devil or Oldboy have this aspect.

Taxi Driver vs A Taxi Driver -how many taxi drivers are we familiar with?

A Taxi Driver(2017) is no different. When I first heard of the film, I wondered if it was a Korean take on the iconic Taxi Driver(1976) of Martin Scorsese. I was wrong!

Where, on one hand, Taxi Driver focused on the life of Travis Bickle, who took things entirely in his hands and attempted to bring “a real rain that will wash the scum off the streets“, A Taxi Driver was a portrayal of a single father, Kim Man-seob, who was nowhere near a rebel. The latter has humbler origins compared to the former where the protagonist seemingly appears as a furious lone-wolf with minimal relationships, exercising his frustration.

Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver(1976)
Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver(1976)
Kim Man-seob in A Taxi Driver(2017)
Kim Man-seob in A Taxi Driver(2017)

The only frustration of Kim was the ongoing riots that cost him passengers. He viewed the rioters as college kids distracted from their studies. Even more so because of the accidental damages they sometimes did to his taxi.

Even if the frustration of both individuals is related to the larger socio-political scenario, both come off as drastically different.

The difference

The similarity between them is that they both once served in the army. The only thing that concerned Kim was to earn enough for his two-member family. He did not want to change the world, unlike his American counterpart. The different lives of both are also the underlying difference between a first-world and a third-world cinema. So is drastically different the politics governing these respective countries.

One has a flawed democratic rule whereas another evidently has a dictatorial rule, during the times they are set in. Where one shows urban decay as a result of the development of ideas and morals conceived in the West itself, another shows urban decay and desire for democracy as a result of ideas adopted from the Western world.

Shedding light on the premise of A Taxi Driver

When we think of the Korean dictatorship, North Korea immediately springs to mind. But, unknown to many, South Korea had its period of dictatorship and turmoil as well. The first President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, was an anti-communist dictator who had to resign his position due to the increasing protests, in April of 1960.

Another dictator, Park Chung-Hee, rose to power in 1961 after quite a brief period of democratic parliamentary rule. He took over the freedom of the press and the universities but was soon assassinated in 1979. It was then that Chun Doo-Hwan, a brigadier general took responsibility for the investigation of Park’s death. Through this investigation, he assembled many of Park’s supporters and organized them in a military coup. He successfully persuaded then-president Choi Kyu-Hah to appoint him as the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in April of the year 1980. Following this, martial law was declared in May of that year.

There occurred several protests nationwide following this. The southern city of Kwangju or Gwangju, being a major location of the pro-democratic movement, witnessed an uprising and a severe clash between protestors and the military. It was on May 18th, the day of the clash, that we see German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter (referred to as Peter) arriving in South Korea pretending to be a missionary. The Gwangju Uprising forms the premise of A Taxi Driver.

The Gwangju Rebellion

The United States had acquired operational control over South Korean forces since the Korean War, which is still maintained. With their approval, Chun Doo-Hwan continued transferring paratroopers to Gwangju in order to mitigate protests. Such an action, however, had contrary effects. The unleashing of the military instigated an increase in rebellious forces as more and more protesters came forward to confront the army. Anti-American sentiments were also roused among the protesters due to this.

Kim and Peter had a difficult time entering the premises of the city, with all routes blocked. Not only that but measures were also taken so that no contact could be established with anyone in Gwangju. Upon their arrival, they saw placards and graffiti in support of democracy. A democratic rule was indeed desired following continual periods of dictatorship. Civilians had chosen to fight back and had armed themselves with bats, rods, pipes, etc.

The ignorance of Kim in A Taxi Driver

The name of the movie refers to just another taxi driver, who is of little to no importance in society. In this aspect, perhaps, Kim shares a similarity with Travis -of triviality. While Peter was embraced as a beacon of hope, on one hand, Kim only received applause for transferring this beacon on the other.

It was not that Kim himself ever wanted a part in this, anyway. He took the trouble of bringing Peter only because of the money he was promised for the task. Kim detested student protesters due to their “lack of manners”. He even dismissed the claims of citizens regarding the violence displayed by the military. As in one instance, he told an elderly mother of a seemingly harmed student protester that her son must have been out drinking.

Old woman from A taxi Driver (2)
A Taxi Driver

The dilemma of Kim

Peter: “…you knew exactly that it would be dangerous here!”

Kim: “What’s this prick saying?”

Jae-sik: “Mister, calm down! He says you knew the danger.”

Kim: “Bullshit! Like hell I did.”

The conversation above happened when Peter offered Kim money for repairs. Although it was money that Kim was after, the present scenario was hurtful to his ego, all the more due to the questioning of the other drivers upon such a high fare. He now regretted the moment he chose to pick up the foreign reporter. He now despised Peter and the thought of his daughter worried him.

The character study of Kim is important for an understanding of A Taxi Driver. Kim could not care more about the vital mission of Peter, or the uprising itself. At times, it may also appear that he was afraid. But, to assert such generalizations is to undermine the psychologically complex character that Kim was.

Some contrary instances to such assertions can be highlighted. One can be when he questioned the actions of the soldiers as to why they were “beating and chasing people who weren’t doing anything“. Kim was in a dilemma and had begun to question his own understanding of things.

Bridging the gaps

The instance at the dinner table was where the bond between Kim and Jae-sik strengthened. Kim acknowledged Peter‘s struggles. Peter, in turn, admitted that he became a journalist due to money and that in coming to Gwangju he had primarily been seeking news. The issue of money helped Kim to gain familiarity with his passenger. Moreover, everyone acknowledged Kim as well for his bravery. In spite of culinary differences, language barriers, and some petty jokes, this instance contributed largely to bridging the gaps between strangers.

The scene following soon after at the TV Centre can be considered as one of the turning points for not only Kim but for Peter and Jae-sik as well. This was when they confronted the dictatorial law and its imposers. Despite all their safety measures, they could not evade this confrontation. Moreover, Jae-Sik narrowly escaped death. However, this instance contributed to strengthening the bonds between them even more.

The protest of Kim as a taxi driver

The assertion of someone opposed to the law as “commie” by lawmakers should be highlighted in this instance. I think the protest that Kim put up here was a remarkable one.

“Where are you running, commie?”

“Spare me, I am not a commie”

“You prick! Damn commie!”

“I am really not a commie…”

A Taxi Driver (2017)
A Taxi Driver (2017)

Despite the severe beatings he received from the leader, Kim repeatedly stressed the fact that he was not a “commie”. Not only his protests against this name-calling were due to the hatred prevalent among the South Korean government against communism, but it was also a protest against an assertion so contrasting to his own self. Neither was he ever politically outspoken, nor he cared about most things that did not concern his livelihood.

Such name-calling is as much relevant in other instances of global politics, as it is nonsensical and superficial. It only hints at generalizations by authoritarian powers and demeaning as such of anyone voicing any opposing opinions -a barrier obstructing knowledge itself. Such assertions aim to bring oppositions, communist or not, under one spectrum in order to tend to that desire of the mind which demands categorizations.

Further questions

If Kim was in a dilemma earlier, this situation made him even more questioning than ever. Looking back at the events, he could not come up with an answer to serve his understanding. A simple taxi-driver like him only believed in doing his job, and could not think of tangling himself up in affairs such as the one that happened earlier that day.

“…but I did not argue. That is the kind of guy I am.”

Kim, A Taxi Driver(2017)

He related past events of his life to what he experienced that day. He expressed helplessness not only for past occurrences in his life but also at the unexpected turn of events while he was only performing his duties. Never in his wildest imaginations, he had expected to receive such a beating for dedicatedly doing his job. This stressing upon his absence of revolt was a feeble attempt to trace the failure of his persuasion of the leader from beating him. Kim was not even given a chance to explain to the leader his selfish motives in bringing Peter to Gwangju. Had he not done so, Peter would have paid him no money at all.

“No Gwangju, no money.”

Peter to Kim upon the latter’s reluctance in going to Gwangju, A Taxi Driver(2017)

This situation was parallel to the helplessness he had felt prior to his wife’s death and the regret later through the thought that he “could have tried more meds.”

A turn of events

Kim left Peter behind the following day, perhaps more out of indecisiveness than fear. He had the thought of his daughter in his mind, calling up for whom he was bombarded with questions from his landlady. Again, he did not argue. The remark of the shoe-seller regarding him remembering his daughter’s feet size was evident of the intimate bond he shared with his daughter. The thought of family never abandoned Kim.

However, something came in between his expectation of a reunion with his beloved daughter. The conversation of two of the customers with the waitress made him uncomfortable. They talked along the lines of the rumors spread by news channels broadcasting events of Gwangju . The talk of soldiers being killed by student protesters, the mention of “hardcore Communists” and even “gangsters from Seoul” made him even more anxious.

A Taxi Driver (2017)
A Taxi Driver (2017)

A sheer moment of disbelief! Was he now also labeled a “gangster”? And if that was not all, even the newspapers had published news contrary to what Kim had witnessed with his own eyes.

Newspaper from A Taxi Driver (2017)

This was all that he needed for the desire to spark within him to go deliver his passenger from the clutches of plausible death. He burst into a song of separation depicting a plan of lovers to elope and broke down himself.

The situation had undoubtedly worsened in Gwangju. According to actual reports of the uprising, the casualties numbered about 2,000 people -most of them university students. In the film, among other students, the corpse of Jae-Sik was present in a hospital room when Kim entered. Kim‘s song some moments ago signified the beginning of a chain of separation and agony, of which this was only a start. However, this changed Kim‘s indecisive state of mind completely.

Truth and fiction in A Taxi Driver

The realms of historical truth and cinematic fiction blend in A Taxi Driver pretty well. Although based on an important historical event, the nuances of fiction largely highlight the Korean art of storytelling.

For instance, the scene of the army sergeant letting Kim and his passenger go, after which the car chase took place, most probably never happened. The real-life journalist, along with Kim and an accompanying sound-man(absent in the movie) could manage to get across without apparent difficulty.

That, however, does not rule out the actual role played by taxi drivers in saving wounded citizens amidst the firing of the army, as depicted in the movie. The title of the movie also echoes this exceptional bravery, hinting at the role of taxi drivers during the uprising.

A Taxi Driver is a drama, not a documentary. Truly, the film relies on artistic imagination, moods, intensity, and dramatization. These qualities serve to make it a cinema. But, such qualities blend with Historical truth. In highlighting the latter, A Taxi Driver largely relies on the unsung lives of ordinary people, such as Kim‘s and Jae-Sik‘s. The fictional depiction of the disappearance of Kim at the end of the movie, too, is a hint towards the “ordinariness”. Although the real-life Kim never made it long enough to see South Korea’s transfer of power, the taxi driver in the film never saw Hinzpeter, intentionally, in spite of being alive and the latter’s repeated appeals. The fictional Kim preferred remaining an unsung driver leading an ordinary life. Does such ordinariness also contrast with the ending of Taxi Driver?

The larger aspect

The Gwangju Uprising determined largely the future political scenario in South Korea. Although not immediately successful, this uprising -which the military gradually curbed- marked the beginning of a period of changes in the country. However, the event itself still remains largely removed from international consciousness. For a long time, news about the uprising remained largely suppressed. No informative media escaped the cautious hands of censorship. It was only after Chun Doo-Hwan himself stepped down on the 11th of November, 1988, after a public apology, that the news of the uprising gained major attention.

A still from the Gwangju Uprising of 1980
A still from the Gwangju Uprising of 1980

Even in 2015 when the script was conceived, cultural enemies were being hunted down by the then-president Park Geun-hye. She was the daughter of Park Chung-hee -the assassinated former president. However, by 2016, shootings for the film started, despite apparent dangers.

Actor Song Kang-ho had already made it to the blacklist of Park Geun-hye in 2015. In addition to that, his appearance in A Taxi Driver (2017) had its consequences. He was offered no major roles for some time.

Neglecting obvious threats, the movie comes off as a rebellious attempt in itself. Through engaging narration, it aims to etch the mind deeply through remembrance of these events. Memory is fundamental in the shaping of history. The film, thus, serves this larger aspect of memory, the lack of which causes distortions in history.

Leave a Reply