Tuesday 29 August 2017

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison reviews the South Korean domestic mega-hit A TAXI DRIVER (Jang Hoon, 2017)

Song Kang-ho, Poster, A Taxi Driver
I keep on wondering if the ethnic circuit movies really are better than the conventionally released films with their bundle of overseas reviews and festival diplomas. Is it just the buzz of having beaten the system and making a discovery or are the films selected to grab foreign speaking viewers genuinely more involving, more imaginative? Either way, the hits just keep coming.

This week you can see Hoon Jang's new South Korean Taeksi Woonjunsa/A Taxi Driver where we kick off with the ubiquitous Kang-ho Song (Swiri, the admirable The Foul King, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host and Snowpiercer), singing along at the wheel with the radio, only to be ticked off by dodging one of the protesters running through the streets of 1980 Seoul and damaging the mirror on his clapped out green taxi. His eleven-year-old daughter keeps on getting into punch-ups with his landlord neighbour’s son. Song has to borrow his outstanding rent.

Thomas Kretschmann, A Taxi Driver
Meanwhile in Japan, news hound Thomas Kretsch-mann (Dario Argento’s Count Dracula and featured player in Der Untergang and Young Victoria) has met BBC Reporter Joey Albright, who just got out of Korea where there’s dangerous instability. Kretschmann is on the next plane with a passport that says Missionary.

In the drivers’ cafe, Song hears about a fare which one of them has lined up to take a foreigner to Guangju for a sum that would square our hero’s debts. He beats the man’s time there, lying to Kretschmann about having been briefed and speaking English. The deal is to get into the riot torn city and back out before curfew but any experienced movie goer knows that’s not going to happen. They encounter a military road block and after some fast talking and consulting an aged peasant about the back roads, the pair make it onto the deserted town streets where a truck load of student protesters attracts Kretschmann’s attention and we get into his filming.

The green Seoul taxi scoots past the student demonstration in Gwangju
A Taxi Driver
All the ‘take the fare money, refuse the fare money’ gets to be repetitive and Song’s conversion from apathetic mercenary to believer is predictable and unconvincing but the situation and Song’s performance keep on grabbing our attention - taking the ailing granny to the casualty packed hospital, watching from the safety of the roof as police vans shoot tear gas grenades into the mob before Kretschmann insists on going in for close-up action, hearing the state news announce that a few Communist agitators have brought in gangsters from Seoul that the military have had to suppress with minimal casualties, Song escaping to the comparative normalcy of the outside world only to double back and re-enthuse the appalled Kretschmann, wounded demonstrators shot down by the line of soldiers with the return of the fat student we’d all forgotten about, the discovery of the incriminating Seoul license plates or the green cabs racing to block the cop cars on the highway.

This one is not tuned to international tastes. Having the leads barely able to communicate with each other is not usual. Conviction tends to wilt where Song is not dominating the frame. Not to go all Dunkirk on its ass but that would be more substantial if Kretschmann wasn’t shooting talking heads with a film camera with no sound gear. He is disturbingly under-characterised, though the actor looks the part. The menacing civilian clothed military police are strip cartoon villains. The film could lose a half hour from its 137 minutes - the night with the friendly locals, the attack on the newspaper -  but the situation and the handling assert in a way that more familiar material does not.

There’s a good standard of production which the theatrical copy does justice.

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