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Film / A Taxi Driver

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A Taxi Driver is a 2017 South Korean historical fiction drama film that depicts a financially struggling taxi driver in 1980 South Korea finding himself forced to ferry a German reporter to Gwangju out of desperation to pay rent. It is one of the highest-grossing films in South Korea and has earned rave reviews from both domestic and international critics.

The film's primary and titular character is Kim Man-seob (Song Kang-ho), a widowed single father who is forced to care for his daughter. Being strapped for cash and already late on his rent due to short-paying customers, Man-seob is forced to ferry Peter (Thomas Kretschmann), a German reporter who doesn't know Korean, who commands Kim to drive him to the Gwangju massacre so that he may film it and expose it to the international press.

A Taxi Driver was submitted to the 90th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film as the South Korean entry, but did not get nominated. Instead, the award went to the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman.

Not to be confused with the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alleged Car: Man-seob's green cab, a 1979 Kia Brisa, is said to be outdated and its engine is past expiration date.
  • All for Nothing: Man-seob spent 5 years in hot, sandy Saudi Arabian deserts driving a truck and he ended up using all that money he earned on medical bills for his ailing wife and he only had enough left for the green taxi cab.
  • Armies Are Evil: The ROK Army beat up, gas or shoot whoever they suspect is protesting the South Korean government. Not to mention they also enforce South Korea's current government of being a dictatorship and denying South Korean citizens basic rights such as freedom of press and 24/7 telephone communication.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The real-life taxi driver did not steal Hinzpeter's fare from another driver for a big payday. Hinzpeter and Kim had worked together for five years leading up to the uprising.
    • Kim and Hinzpeter did not get past a military checkpoint through the intervention of a sympathetic sergeant. Hinzpeter simply hid the film in his belt.
    • You can probably guess that Hinzpeter and Kim's escape from Gwangju did not involve a high-speed car chase intercepted by a detachment of renegade taxi drivers.
  • Bad Liar: Man-seob when trying to lie to the teenage boys that he lost track of them cause they went too fast, when really he did a U-turn on purpose to ditch them, when actually they were going rather slow and one of the boys was giving hand signals to Man-seob.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The Gwangju taxi drivers, who arrive at the scene of the demonstration in the climax to save injured students.
  • Blackmail: Peter enacts this on Man-seob ordering him to either find a way to get him into Gwangju or risk losing the 100,000 won payment. Man-seob (unsuccessfully) tries getting back at Peter a couple times.
  • Brand X: Sa-bok cigarettes. It's what gives Man-seob the idea to go under the pseudonym Sa-bok.
  • Bring Help Back: Peter wants to continue filming more of the atrocities being committed against the citizens of Gwangju, but they plead with him to leave and tell the rest of the world of what is going on.
  • The Bully: Sang-gu. He won't stop picking on Eun-jung and physically and verbally abuses her For the Evulz. Man-seob wants to get retribution on Sang-gu but Sang-gu's mother is the landlord and Man-seob is 4 months late on rent.
  • Butt-Monkey: Man-seob. Not only does he got short-changed by customers on a daily basis (if not hourly basis), but he even gets his taxi fare swiped out of hand in the hospital scene. At least Peter tries to drown out Man-seob's misery with money.
  • Character Development: Zigzagged. Man-seob takes an instant disliking to Peter for forcing him to enter a heavily sanctioned city tearing itself apart through violence from both angry protesters and heavily armed ROK soldiers. After finally escaping Gwangju, Man-seob adamantly cuts all ties with Peter as soon as he drops him off at the airport despite Peter frantically trying to reunite with him, because he wants to protect himself from the ROK authorities. On the other hand, Man-seob initially wanted Peter to pay him as soon as possible to cover rent but in the end he doesn't want any money from Peter and declines to take his money for any car repairs.
  • Crapsaccharine World: South Korea set in the 1980s. The harsh effects of the Korean War that devastated the country when North Korea outright invaded their neighbor appear to be waning (such as food and job shortages) but now the people are being ravaged by censorship and army brutality. The media is only allowed by the government to report on the positive qualities of the country, such as its booming markets and businesses, which is deceiving half of the public including Man-seob himself.
  • Damsel in Distress: Kim Eun-jung, Man-seob's daughter, who gets stranded home alone because her dad's car gets broken down while he's stuck in Gwangju.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Man-seob claims he has a rough history losing his wife and having had to work for 5 years in Saudi Arabia, which he describes as unpleasantly hot and sandy.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Peter at first refuses to share what he's going to do in Gwangju with Man-seob, stating "It's none of your business." Man-seob, due to the language barrier between Korean and English, misinterprets this as that Peter is a businessman. Though later on Man-seob does see that Peter is a journalist who's come to Gwangju to record everything on camera and doesn't do anything related to business, then asks Peter why didn't he say so sooner. The irony is that Peter actually did tell him, but since it was in English, Man-seob couldn't understand him.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Man-seob after the death of his wife. He stopped after he realized he was neglecting his daughter.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Did Man-seob even stop to consider that anything belonging to Peter remains in his cab when he tried to desert Peter?
  • Failing a Taxi:
    • Man-seob in his hurry to race back to Seoul from Gwangju finds an elderly woman ( Yong-pyo's mother) begging for him to ferry her. He first hesitates and drives by her, fearing he'll run into ROK soldiers but has a change of heart when he sees her about to collapse to the ground.
    • After Man-seob drives her to the hospital to go find her son, he witnesses a Gwangju taxi driver turning away a reporter asking for a ride. Man-seob sarcastically remarks that driver must be rich.
  • Fat Bastard: Sang-gu. He's the overweight boy who always bullies Eun-jung.
  • First-World Problems: Man-seob considers the Gwangju riots to fit this trope at first, as he uses Saudi Arabia as his bar for a miserable homeland and thinks that South Koreans who aren't proud of their country like he is are just selfish. On the contrary, South Korea was globally viewed as a failed, unstable dictatorship plagued with riots and poverty that was a democracy only in name at the time this movie was set and South Korea was nowhere near a First World country in the early 1980s. Man-seob changes his mind when he sees for himself that the ROK Soldiers are brutalizing normal citizens, not merely protesters.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The ROK government, since they functioned as a dictatorship in the time setting of this film.
  • Heroic BSoD: Peter when a number of the students die, including Jae-sik. Man-seob brings him out of it.
    Man-seob: You promised, to tell people. It needs to be broadcast, so people will know.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hwang Tae-sol kamikazes his car at full-speed reverse into the pursuing ROK Army forces to save Kim and Peter.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: The ROK Army Colonel believes that he is protecting his country from communism because it is considered an enemy ideology to democracy, though what he enforces upon the South Korean people is very undemocratic such as cutting off phone lines, silencing the press and brutalizing citizens.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier
    • Played for Laughs on the way to Gwangju. Man-seob notices Peter looking at him in the rear-view mirror and says in Korean, "Glare at me like that and I'll rip your eyes out....You don't know what I'm saying, do you?" Then he switches to English to say "Gwangju, OK!"
    • Played for Drama when the army colonel, holding Jae-sik at gunpoint, demands that Man-seob and Peter surrender. Jae-sik asks the colonel to let him call out in English for Peter to give up. After the colonel agrees, Jae-sik calls out in English for Peter and Man-seob to run for it and leave him.
  • Insistent Terminology: Kim assumes that Peter is a reporter for bringing a video camera. Peter claims he's not, he's a journalist.
  • Jail Bake: Man-seob and Peter hide the Gwangju camera footage inside a cookie box so that Peter can bring them to Germany without being detected at the airport. This really happened.
  • Kick the Dog: The ROK soldiers outright hospitalize hundreds of innocent civilians who weren't even protesting.
  • Language Barrier: Koreans have difficulty communicating with Hinzpeter, who speaks not a word of Korean, while only a few Koreans can speak to him in English as a lingua franca. Kim claims that he is proficient in English to get the job, but it turns out he knows only a smattering of words.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Man-seob mocks Sang-gu for getting almost as fat as his father.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: To protect himself from the authorities in Gwangju, Man-seob gives Peter the alias "Sa-bok" when he sees the packet of Sa-bok Cigarettes.
  • The Lost Lenore: Man-seob's wife, who died before the events of the film.
  • My Car Hates Me: Man-seob's car breaks down in the dead of night on the same day he and Peter arrive in Gwangju when all the repair shops have closed and the ROK Armed Forces cut off all the phone lines, leaving his daughter Eun-jung home alone. Man-seob discards a mechanic's warning to replace his car because of how much that would cost.
  • My God, What Have I Done? : Peter easily falls into guilt for all the trouble he caused Man-seob. He even tries to tip Man-seob a huge sum of money that's substantially bigger than the total amount due to make up for that. This doesn't work and/or backfires, as it only makes Man-seob angrily accuse Peter of being quite wealthy and using money to avoid any repercussions.
    Peter: If it's about repairs, let me pay for it. (hands over a wad of cash to Kim)
    Man-seob: (in Korean) DID I ASK YOU FOR MONEY?!
  • Never My Fault: Man-seob blames Peter for getting him stranded in Gwangju miles away from his daughter back in Seoul, forgetting in the process that Peter was never his rightful client and that he swiped him away from another taxi driver just to make rent money.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Peter forces Man-seob to abandon his daughter for a whole night to film the Gwangju massacre. Peter does feel guilty about it and tries making it up to Man-seob.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Man-seob, at first. However, after Jae-sik is killed, he decides to willingly participate and helps to rescue injured students, defying the authorities.
  • Out-Gambitted: Military intelligence thinks they've nailed Peter when his name comes up on a passenger manifest for a flight out to Tokyo and plan to arrest him before he boards that flight. The reservation is for a 10 AM flight; Peter outmaneuvers them by going to the airport the night before and paying up front with cash for a seat on the last flight out to Tokyo that night instead, when neither the ticket agent nor the border patrol would be told to be on the lookout for him.
  • Papa Wolf: Man-seob doesn't take lightly the fact that his daughter is being bullied and goes to complain to his mother about it. But Sang-gu's mother turns out to be a Mama Bear herself. Also when Peter forces him to enter Gwangju and doesn't relieve him of duty until nighttime, Man-seob tries to avenge his daughter by physically beating up Peter (although he didn't intend any malice to him or his daughter) only to get a bloody nose from him as a consequence.
  • Red Scare: South Korea (shown in the film during its not-very-golden age) is shown to be riddled with a Communist witch hunt since the government is actively tracking any potential spies their Korean War adversaries North Korea and Soviet Russia are sending into their homeland or homegrown sympathizers of Communism.
  • The Reveal: Peter is Jürgen Hinzpeter, the journalist.
  • Road Block: The military sets these up on every road approaching Gwangju, even the backwood ones only the locals know about. Man-seob and Peter manage to get into the city by bluffing past one by pretending Peter is a businessman who left some important papers in Gwangju. Getting out, though, proves even harder as by then the military are on the lookout for a Caucasian journalist riding in a taxi with Seoul plates. They had swapped the plates with Gwangju ones, but the soldier inspecting the trunk discovers the Seoul plates buried underneath the pile of Buddha's Birthday souvenirs. Luckily, he's also a university student who seems to be sympathetic to the protestors' cause and pretends not to have seen the incriminating evidence as he tells the others to let them through. Man-seob and Peter are barely back in the taxi when the checkpoint's radio orders them to detain all taxis without exception, necessitating a desperate run to escape with a soldier clinging by the door handle.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Jae-sik. His death is part of what causes Man-seob to care about the uprising.
  • Saying Too Much: The taxi driver who was initially going to ferry Peter says out loud how much Peter is willing to pay him, which motivates Man-seob to steal Peter away from him.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Man-seob is initially an avaricious Dirty Coward who tried to abandon Peter in Gwangju after taking half the money, but after spending some time in the revolution he grows to genuinely care about the cause.
  • Token White: Peter himself, as everyone in South Korea can tell he's a foreigner because the country is (by enforced law) racially homogenous.
  • Translator Buddy: Koo Jae-sik. Peter hires him to tag along and translate Korean to English.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Man-seob agrees to ferry Peter into Gwangju for the sake of money. When Jae-sik translates in English to Peter that Kim is angry at Peter for forcing him to enter Gwangju, Peter retorts:
    Peter: You knew exactly that it would be dangerous here!
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the renegade Gwangju taxi drivers? Were they arrested? Imprisoned? Did they even survive?
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Both Man-seob and Peter argue with each other over their own priorities: Peter trying to film the riots, Man-seob trying to hide in safety and avoid getting trampled over or rounded up by the army. As Man-seob tried deliberately abandoning Peter in a section of Gwangju that's become a ghost town, Peter, Koo Jae-sik and other witnesses accuse Man-seob of trying to steal Peter's expensive and priceless camera and film. Man-seob "only" wanted to get rid of Peter just to avoid getting his car wrecked again or even get arrested by ROK soldiers.
  • Work Off the Debt: Man-seob's reason for ferrying Peter into the politically unstable and ruined city of Gwangju is because he owes a large sum of money to his Cranky Landlord.
  • You Are Fat: Man-seob fat shames Sang-gu as payback for injuring his daughter.