A Taxi Driver, The Best Korean Movie of 2017?
Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) is a German reporter who works on a project in Tokyo, but one night when he is hanging out with his colleague, they told him about the riot that has been happening in Gwangju, South Korea. Piqued by this news and also because work is slow in Tokyo, Peter decided to go to Gwangju and see for himself what is really going on.
This movie is based on a true story of the real events that happened in 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea.
First, I am going to give a little background as to what really happened in Gwangju. It all started when President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26,1979. The abrupt termination of Park Chung-hee’s 18 years of authoritarian rule left a power vacuum and leads to political and social instability. That was when the South Korean Army’s general Chun Doo-Hwan stepped up and tried to seize the government for himself by using military power. Chun Doo-hwan forced the “martial law” over the whole nation, which had not previously been applied to the Jeju Province. To enforce the “martial law”, they closed universities, banned political activities and also controlled the press on what they can and cannot publish to the public.
On May of 1980, the city of Gwangju exploded in an uprising against Chun Doo-hwan’s government. The students of the local Chonnam University started a demonstration against the Chun Doo-hwan government, which was followed suit by the citizens of Gwangju. During this period, everything was a chaotic as citizens of Gwangju continued to protest and fight against the government while the government trying to repress it and fight back by using military force.
I actually was not planning on watching this movie as the movie poster does little to encourage me to want to watch it (don’t judge the book by it’s cover, I know). But when I heard that this movie is said to be the movie of the year in Korea, it piqued my interest and I decide to see for myself what the hype is all about.
Kim Man-Seob is a simple man. He is – like most people – driven by money. He doesn’t dream of being something more or doing anything more than what he is doing, all he wants is to get enough money to be able to let his daughter live a good life. As most humans are, he is selfish and an opportunist. Man-Seob never fail to jump at opportunities that could make him money. So naturally, when he overheard the conversation where a foreigner is willing to pay a fortune just to go to Gwangju, he called shotgun and jumped at the opportunity. After all, we make our own fate, right?
When Peter first sees Man-Seob, he is a little bit skeptical, but he decide to not press the matter further as time is of the essence. Peter tells Man-Seob that he needs to get to Gwangju fast, and is willing to pay 100,000 won for it. Without having to think twice, Man-Seob agrees and speed through Seoul at the mention of 100,000 won. With his limited English, he tries to communicate with Peter, asking him why is he going to Gwangju when there is already news about the riot in Gwangju – which Peter nonchalantly replied to.
Despite how this movie portrayed Man-Seob as a selfish and cowardly man, I actually find it quite refreshing and easier to relate to. Almost from the very start, there has been bad traction between the two – Peter and Man-Seob. Peter would say something in English, which Man-Seob would pick up about 40% and just winging the rest of it. When he got frustrated at Peter and his demands, he would also silently curse at Peter in Korean and brag about the fact that Peter has no idea what he is saying. Altogether, I quite enjoy the dynamic between the two, I like that Man-Seob is a spunky character who is always on defense about everything while Peter is the calm and collected one.
Once they arrive in Gwangju, Man-Seob is surprised at the state of the province. Businesses are closed, the streets are empty and quiet, there’s barely anyone insight despite the fact that it is still in the middle of the day. As he drives deeper into the city, he hear people screaming and and shouting, until eventually he realize what the citizens of Gwangju are doing. They all are gathering to protest against the new Chun Doo-Hwan government, and also protesting against the “martial law”. That is when it starts to dawn on Man-Seob about the situation in Gwangju and what is going on there. It is also when he realizes just how much of the truth the media has been hiding from the public.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I actually find this movie kind of flat. I am not saying that this movie is bad or not worth watching – because it is worth watching as you can learn so much from it – but, it just fell flat from the expectations that I have for this movie. There is a lot of plot holes to the storyline, such as the how whole thing suddenly just happened with no background story as to why it happened at all. In the movie, all of a sudden people just start rioting and mentioning Chun Doo-hwan’s name once or twice and their hatred for him, as if that is an explanation enough for what is going on in this movie. I get that this might be a no-brainer for Koreans as this is a movie that is heavily correlated with their history. However, for people like me, who are not familiar with Korea’s history, I would have liked if there were more explanation and background story to how things become the way that it did and why people reacted the way they did.
There are also things that happened in the movie that just doesn’t make sense when you think about it logically, it was as if the director added some scenes out of nowhere to speed up the pace of the movie or intensify it to play with the viewers emotions. There were more than a few times where it feels to me as if the scenes are made so that it tugs at your heart string and make you feel for the characters when you logically think of it, it doesn’t really make that much sense at all.
Despite all that, I enjoyed seeing the change in Man-Seob. At first he was a selfish, scaredy cat, but as the movie progress, you can also witness the change in his character. He started to think more about other people rather than just about himself, so it was nice to see his character grow and change under these kind of circumstances. Just like the movie The Battleship Island, I like how Korean directors are making movies that has to do with Korea’s history as the viewers actually take away something from these movies. All things considered, I enjoyed this movie. It was heartwarming and touching to see how Peter and Man-Seob fought hard for the lives of all those citizens in Gwangju and I am happy that they got to share their story with the world.