Movie Review: Korean history turns on the efforts of “A Taxi Driver”

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“A Taxi Driver” is a Korean epic, a tipping point in the history of South Korea. A little old-fashioned and a touch melodramatic, it’s still a compelling Korean “Year of Living Dangerously.”

South Korean cinemas’ Everyman, Kang-ho Song  (“The Host,” “Thirst,” “Snowpiercer”) has the title role, a struggling cabbie in Seoul trying to make a living in the aftermath of a presidential assassination and military coup.

Kim obsesses about his car, is behind on his rent, his 11 year-old daughter is a latchkey kid and he’s hitting up friends and relatives for cash.

His big break? Overhearing a 100,000 won (currency) fee a fellow driver is iffy about taking.

Kim bluffs his way into picking up the fare, a German TV reporter who assumes that the guy has been told what he’s in for. Peter (Thomas Kretschmann of “The Pianist”) has a camera and wants to get to Gwangju. Something terrible is happening there, and the military and secret police have sealed off the city.

We’ve seen the driver grouse about college kids protesting for democracy. He glad-hands the military check-points that stop them, referencing his own military service and returning salutes with the accompanying vow — “ALLEGIANCE!”

He speaks a little English, the one language they have in common. But his growing worry has him muttering, cursing his backseat passenger, in Korean.

“Why so rude? Go ahead and glare at me, you jerk!”

But what he sees after they sneak into Gwangju changes him. Peaceful protesters are met with hails of bullets. The hospitals are over-run. He gets to meet one of those college kids (Jun-yeol Ryu) marching for democracy.

And the state police have orders — no reporters can witness this. Jürgen Hinzpeter is determined to foil this fascist cover-up. Hinzpeter’s mission become’s Kim’s mission. He must help the German let the world see this.

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Director Hun Jang’s (“The Front Line”) film lunges from violence to quizzical, comical in-over-my-head double-takes to chases and face-downs against heavily armed aggressors that will grab your heart and inspire you.

It’s somewhat labored and too long, despite the gravitas of the subject. The finale feels maudlin and hits its obvious point too hard. But think about that Samsung, “Gangnam Style” dance or Kia Soul you treasure.

None of that would have happened without real people, journalists and working Joes driving taxis, not uniformed “heroes,” standing up to men with guns.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, with graphic violence

Cast:  Kang-ho SongThomas KretschmannHae-jin Yoo, Jun-yeol Ryu

Credits: Directed by Hun Jang , script by . A Well Go release.

Running time: 2:17

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