[HanCinema's Film Review] "Taxi Blues"

In the summer of 2005, director Choi-ha Dong-ha drove a taxi around Seoul for the night shift, recording his experiences as a sort of experimental film, it being quite ambiguous to what extent his mostly inebriated charges were aware of or consented to the fact that he was filming. The ethical problems implied by this have made "Taxi Blues" a largely forgotten film, although it remains an astonishingly stark portrayal of the malaise of mid-aughts era South Korea.


To put it simply, the Seoul depicted in "Taxi Blues" isn't one of fun and razzle dazzle. The passengers tell genuinely alarming stories about themselves. One woman with a baby is tearfully talking to her mother-in-law about how she's at the end of her rope in regard to her husband not functioning as a provider for his family. But more often than not the passengers are just men telling hopeful stories that don't go anywhere at best and vomiting in the back seat at worst.

In between all these anecdotes, the unnamed driver narrates the exact function of his work- the cutthroat attitude he has to take regarding other drivers, the pitiful income from the job, and the technical route mapping he has to do in order to make trips worthwhile, in ways that don't make much intuitive sense. When two polite charges ask him to drive slowly, they're perplexed why he'd prefer to to get new riders, since it seems to them like he should be getting paid the same either way.

Even when the driver has positive interactions with his riders, the overall experience remains alienating, and his own mandated politeness slowly leads him to an attitude of quiet desperation. On two occasions the driver mulls over accepting services from a sex worker, and the fact that he comes much closer the second time is indicative of how the work hasn't been good for him mentally. Then the few moments we see of him at home or at the depot demonstrate that as bad as taxi driving work is, it's still the high point of his day.

I'm making "Taxi Blues" sound a lot more bleak than it really is. The ennui isn't really meant to be depressing so much as it is meant to simulate what it's like having a job like this. Sure, the driver meets all these interesting people, but after awhile, their individually gratifying drama just starts to blend into each other. A week later I've started to lose track of most of these anecdotes, and am left with only the movie's general vibe.

In a way "Taxi Blues" can be cheerful in the sense that its beaten down attitude to work shows that this kind of ambivalence isn't a new idea in South Korean culture, even if the lack of solutions to any of its problems remains alarming. In moments where the driver is listening to the radio, and we hear about then contemporaneous political crises...there's just a sense that, surely there's a better way to go about life than all this. Isn't there?

Written by William Schwartz


"Taxi Blues" is directed by Choi-ha Dong-ha, and features Yoon Yeong-geol, Jo Se-young. Release date in Korea: 2007/12/21.