Jang Hoon has a commercial hit on his hands with this period piece about a notorious abuse of power in South Korea

Dir: Jang Hoon. South Korea. 2017. 137mins

Palpably well-crafted and acted, Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver casts Song Kang-ho as a cabbie who takes a German journalist (Thomas Kretschmann) into the Korean city of Gwangju in May 1980 in the middle of an uprising in which paratroopers opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds. Arrriving in Korean cinemas less than a year after citizens poured onto the streets of Seoul to protest - and eventually unseat - President Park Geun-hye, Jang Hoon’s drama seems well placed to tap into the political consciouness both locally and overseas when it opens at home and in a raft of international territories (US, UK and Australia/NZ) after closing the Fantasia International Film Festival. Further Asian territories come on line in September.

Front and centre is an excellent Song Kang-ho who repeatedly demonstrates how his presence can transform a film

The film is set during the brief time when martial law was declared in South Korea by the military government in response to growing demands for democracy. Troops were sent to major cities, but the city of Gwanju was a particular flashpoint due to its high concentration of students. Eom Yu-na’s deft script is based on a true story which took place when German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter travelled to Gwangju to witness first-hand the reprisals.

The action starts in Seoul when cab driver Man-seob (Song) hears of an opportunity to take Peter, a German journalist (Kretschmann) down to the city of Gwangju, located in the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. Behind in rent and evidently struggling to raise his daughter, this single father sees the trip as easy money. As soon as he hears how much Peter is paying, he sets about beating another driver to the job.

When the two draw close to the city of Gwangju, they see it has been closed off by the army. Man-seob finds a way to cross the barricades by using back roads, but they soon realise they are witnessing a massacre unfold. Peter has his camera rolling, but once the authorities realise that there is a foreign journalist in the city, they start to hunt the pair down. They are, however, helped by other taxi drivers in the city along with students.

As the situation deteriorates, Man-seob is faced with a decision: should he ensure that Peter is brought back to Seoul so he can smuggle the footage out of Korea for it to be aired on German TV, or go home as quickly as possible to his 11-year-old daughter?

Jang Hoon, who worked as an assistant director under Kim Ki-duk (Time) brings a strong sense of craftsmanship to his films (Rough Cut, Secret Reunion, The Front Line), which is also true here. Strong production values help underline the brutality inflicted on the people of Gwangju, yet Eom Yu-na’s script also infuses the film with touches of humour.

Front and centre, though, is an excellent Song Kang-ho who repeatedly demonstrates how his presence can transform a film, much the same as The Attorney, another 1980s-set, politically charged, film. Foreign actors have invariably come across as awkward and out of place in Korean cinema, but Thomas Kretschmann is a rare example of an performer who can comfortably mould with the rest of the cast, particularly his co-lead Song Kang-ho. Supporting roles are equally impressive, not least Ryu Jun-yeol (The King) as one of the students.

A Taxi Driver can over-reach towards its final chase sequences, which enter the realm of fantasy, but they’re not enough to de-rail this fine film. The last commercial film to deal with Gwangju was released in 2007: May 18 accumulated over 7 million admissions ($49.2m) at the box office that year. Interestingly, a decade later, and as Korea sees another progressive president in power, a film about an uprising that became a pivotal point in the country’s road to democracy is once again poised to pull in viewers.

Production Company: The Lamp

International sales: Showbox, sales@showbox.co.kr

Producers: Park Un-kyoung, Choi Ki-sup

Executive producer: You Jeong-hun

Screenplay: Eom Yu-na

Cinematography: Go Rak-sun

Production design: Cho Hwa-sung, Jeong Yi-jin

Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum

Music: Cho Young-wuk

Main cast: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yoo Hai-jin, Ryu Jun-yeol