Christopher Bird’s review published on Letterboxd:
Guess what: this is the best film of 2017 so far.
(I am not counting MOONLIGHT when I say that since although I saw that one in 2017 it's a 2016 release. Although comparing two radically different films is an exercise in futility, whatever, we're here on Letterboxd and that is what we do here, so I would say MOONLIGHT is very, very slightly better, but man, the margins are so thin and they're trying to do such different things. Where was I?)
Perhaps this film resonated for me so greatly because it's really a story about someone who becomes radicalized into action by being a witness, and right now I think that story is one that is exceptionally relevant because a whole lot of people are getting more radicalized by the day as they witness horrible acts taking place. The movie takes its time to develop a character who begins as being mostly self-interested (and when he isn't it's motivation to care for his daughter, and not to downplay the work parents do, but caring for your kids is one step above pure self-interest on the motivation scale and we all know it) and who, by recognition of other people's suffering and by the fact that he is in a unique position to help, ultimately puts his own life at risk repeatedly in order to save people.
That sounds like an easy character progression because it's so naturalistic, but think for a second about how so few films manage to do that story arc well when they try it out. Most just fuck it up at least partially. Many fuck it up completely. But A TAXI DRIVER nails it, and in the process of nailing it makes you realize how badly other films do it.
What's important here, and what really grounds the film, is that the various freedom fighters and citizens of Gwangju aren't heroic archetypes. They mock and they berate and they skive all in their various ways, because that's the point: these are just ordinary people. Ordinary people fuck up in tiny ways on a daily basis, because that's who we are, but ordinary people can also find greatness within them, and that's really the point of the movie.
The leads are both perfect choices to convey this message. You don't get more "ordinary" than Song Kang-Ho, who isn't ordinary, but has common-man touch in his blood (and furthermore at this point needs to be recognized as one of the great actors of our time; seriously, look at his filmography sometime, it's an embarrassment of riches). Thomas Kretschmann, for his part, brings his reporter on the same journey to radicalization without making it obvious that this is what he's doing; at the beginning you can believe he's idealistic, but soon you come to realize he's consumed by his work and has lost a lot of connection to other people, and for him the movie is about finding that again (while barely being able to communicate with almost everybody around him).
The direction and shot selection and cinematography and art direction are all also flawless. This is a gorgeous movie to watch; there are shots that need to be stolen by other directors, and most of them are unobtrusive. You won't notice on a first watch until you think back and say to yourself "...that was a really, really good shot."
Seriously. It's amazing and you owe it to yourself to go see it.