Song Kang-ho did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Kim Man-seob in A Taxi Driver.
I will admit that my initial glowing reaction for this film was amplified by the fact that I knew nothing about it going in making its particular revelations of what the story entails especially striking. Although do not misunderstand me I like the film a great deal, but it's not a flawless film by any measure particularly not when the film leans the scales of fictionalization perhaps just a bit far in its climax. It takes kind of an Argo approach where it has successfully had a lower key yet very tense climax, but then decides to follow it with a more overt action climax. I will admit the action climax is well done in terms of technique, but it just feels a little excessive. Having said that, what originally made me so invested into the story still stands which is within Song Kang-ho's portrayal of the titular taxi driver. Now I must address my perhaps hasty comment in the past in regards to Song Kang-ho where I described him as a "poor man's" Choi Min-sik. That was an unfair statement as Song Kang-ho is a very talented performer in his own right. This performance is further proof of that in that his work carries the film even beyond the fact that he is the lead of the film. Of course as we open up the film this seems like a fairly lightweight performance by Song Kang-ho. This is right in the first shot where we open with him cheerfully singing along with a song on the radio while he drives his taxi around Seoul. Song makes a rather brilliant decision to approach the role from the outset as though he is the lead in a comedy. That's seen from his energy from that opening sing song realizing a man with a song in his heart though not exactly carefree.
Song's approach is notable though as he navigates the early scenes where he goes about what seems like a normal day for the taxi driver Kim. Song delivers the role as this sort of rascal you'd expect from a little more farcical style comedy as in the early scene he scoffs at some young protestors for having it "so good", and goes about chasing down one of them after they inadvertently cause him to break a mirror on his taxi. What I love here is that Song doesn't play it as though we the audience watching him should notice that anything is wrong about this in anyway. This is just a fun performance to watch as Song brings such an abundance of energy to the part that manages to make Kim rather endearing even as he tries to chase down the young guy. He brings just this right type of exuberance in the role fitting to a hapless comic hero even as he deals with a pregnant couple using his taxi, that wouldn't be out of place in an 80's comedy. Kim briefly chews out the man when he doesn't have the money to pay, and what could be a despicable little scene Song makes work in the sort of humorous exasperation he reveals. Although he's not getting his fare, even this is made properly of no importance as he attempts to complain, until the man promises double the next day, where we get Song's hilariously timed instant switch in Kim to a most accommodating taxi driver. Song's terrific in that he does play Kim as a kind of a jerk, but properly as the kind of jerk who is easy to like.
This is not to say that we don't see that Kim has a few problems, as he we find out he's a single dad who is having difficulty making his rent. This is obviously a problem although it is purposefully not given too much gravity by either the film or Song's performance. Song delivers the right earnest, if somewhat hapless, affection though in his early scene with his daughter. He shows well that though Kim loves his daughter it is obviously not exactly prepared to be this great dad. There is just a touch of sorrow that alludes to their mutual loss, though Song effectively portrays this as enough in the past that it no longer is directly upsetting however is still inherent within his relationship with his daughter. Song naturally uses this as part of our sort of hapless hero who even with those problems still is in no way bogged down by them that would make him lose this unique spirit of his. This spirit that is so well realized by Song as something that is both endearing yet selfish at the same time. That sense of fun is so effectively created by Song fitting to a guy who really isn't overly troubled because in his view his problems are not so great they cannot be overcome. Song though finds this exact way this is created though through the narrow perspective that he portrays that defines Kim. Song specifically delivers every line early on that concerns someone out of his situation as this quick brush off of any such concerns returning always to his own experience which while isn't perfect Song shows that he can get along with it just fine.
Kim decides to essentially steal a rider from another taxi driver after overhearing of the inordinately high fare offered for a trip to Gwangju. The rider being a German journalist (Thomas Kretschmann) from Japan intent on covering the uprising in the city despite the South Korean government's ban of foreign journalists. Kim, not knowing the actual details of the job, takes the journalist and here we advance to what could initially be just the beginning of an old fashioned buddy road trip movie. Song is hilarious here in continuing to portray Kim's self absorbed way as he goes about dealing with the journalist who is a particularly demanding costumer. I must say I have particular affection for Song's purposeful butchery of the English language when pretending he has some degree of fluency in it. Song's delivery in this is sheer perfection of a man just trying to get through the most basic communication to get the journalist to stop talking. Song just rambles out any of the words he can as quickly as he can, but then always trails back into Korean as though he only has a very limited set of words he can go by. The majority of their communication ends up being non-verbal then as the two go off where Song continues to be great in actually being kind of a real jerk yet doing it in such amiable way. As Song puts on such a smiling face while attempting any point of actual communication, particularly when it is about his fare, then instantly switches to almost a death stare, a comedic stare mind you, when he goes back to mock the man in Korean.
The two make for an entertaining pair even as Kretschmann plays the journalist as only mildly annoyed by Kim's lack of conviction towards his job. Song though is great in always portraying that exuberance to please only within the context of making the money for the job, but really a general pettiness when that is not a concern. Song's reactions are very funny as he continues to quietly insult the man still just in that singular frame of mind. A chance for this comes when they initially arrive at Gwangju that is obviously going over some considerable upheaval though they arrive during a calm. Song doesn't break his more comedic side even as they arrive in the strange place though he naturally adjusts just early on in portraying the man's slight confusion at the sight of the place since he had no real awareness of. He's still self absorbed though but now in a different way. When the two show up the journalist is greeted with open arms by the local students trying to protest the government, and who initially offer considerable praise to the taxi driver who brought the man. Song's still very entertaining in just showing the rather sudden burst of a foolish pride, even though he has been more or less complaining the whole way without any awareness for the importance of the trip. Song transitions well in calming the more overtly comedic performance to just a still lightly comic one as he discovers something is going on but doesn't take too much note of it.
The situation though slowly appears to be more dire though and Song's terrific in portraying this slight confusion as this representation of him slowly coming out of his bubble a bit. He is sidetracked though when the locals question his motives, and he changes his relationship with the journalist from comically distant to more intensely so. This is mostly in part when those motives are questions and Song's terrific in portraying almost this defense as instinct as the man who in his mind is doing what he's doing for a good enough reason. When the two begin to explore more of the city Song is so effective in just creating this sense of discovery in the man which at first is with a bit of joy as people start treating him well for his "deed", while also capturing this certain bliss of a man who has no idea what's going on. Song presents this especially well by still showing it as mostly within this stuck perception though on how it specifically effects the man. His interactions with the locals and the journalist Song still makes very curt as he would treat any customer still. When they witness more overt violence though Song again carries this character to next stage so well but does not over step the moment. In that he now finds that same self-absorption though now without any humor and just this sense of concern for himself along with a bit of anger for the journalist who he believes put him in this situation.
Song is outstanding though in how subtly he realizes the change in just the scenes of interacting with the locals and the journalist. In these middle scenes he's very quiet and Song's body language is a man just kind of shrinking into his own fear. The kindness of the locals and the moment of just interacting as people Song brings just the slightest change as he begins to notice the people. Song brings out just hints of warmth conveying a slowly growing camaraderie. I especially love his moments with Kretschmann as he captures this perfect combination of this ever so slight understanding towards the man, but with this striking passive aggressive manner that he realizes in these bits of dark joy he finds at any time he can secretly make fun of the man. In every instance of witnessing another horrific misdeed by the government Song naturally ease out of this state and slowly becomes more open and honest in they way he interacts with those around him. Song has a great scene, after the journalist saved him from a vicious soldier, where he finally reveals something about himself to the man, though sort of accidentally keeps it secret since it's in Korean. It's a powerful moment though as Song exudes the man finally breaking his "man as an island" mentality by revealing his own tragedy in the past of losing his wife. Song replays this loss in his performance capturing the grief in this way of understanding the suffering around him finally suggesting a man who has perhaps now come to terms that he was not alone in his pain.
Kim leaves Gwangju without the journalist, in order get his car properly repaired and to return to Seoul to take care of his daughter. While he is getting his car repaired he has time to himself. This is a incredible scene that Song Kang-ho uses so well as this juxtaposition to the man we saw as he entered Gwangju. There we saw the man mostly concerned with his money and his own problems while being oblivious to the obvious troubles around him. In this scene he walks around a celebration and Song's performance conveys the way the man cannot enjoy what is around him as in his mind he shows the man drifting back to the horrors witnessed in the city particularly when all he hears is the government propaganda on what is happening there. This is best realized when he takes off in his taxi again, singing along with the radio as he did in the opening of the film yet now instead of the joyful sing song of a man in his own world Song delivers a wailing tune weighed down by his awareness of the rest of the world. When Kim returns to make sure the journalist makes it out of the city this could come off as overly maudlin yet it is is absolutely earned by Song's performance. In the final act of the film Song's performance becomes mostly reactionary yet it makes no less of an impact. He is fantastic and downright heartbreaking in every scene by showing the full extent of the gravity of the situation in his work. As he watches every atrocity Song's performance ensures the emotion is not lost through realizing how every moment nearly breaks the man. His work with Kretschmann is particularly notable as they don't really say much more to each other yet just the way they look at another powerfully conveys the mutual connection through both their sorrow over what they have seen but also within the conviction to unveil the truth to the world. This is an amazing performance by Song Kang-ho as he pulls the rug out from you by anchoring this film and its tone throughout in such a notable fashion. It is his performance that makes the extreme change in tone from the opening frame to the final shot work. He is convincing in every moment as he goes from this goofy guy in a largely comic work, to a wholly dramatic and devastating portrayal of a man living through and coming to terms with such a horrifying experience.