South Korea: The Tale of ‘A Taxi Driver’ and the Gwangju Massacre

ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES – Despite the cheerful and bright colors advertised on its billboards and posters, “A Taxi Driver” is a film that depicts the serious tale of an unsung hero who helped defend democracy by exposing a military dictatorship’s misdeeds in Gwangju, South Korea. Balancing comedy and political thrills, it helps viewers understand the grim reality of the Gwangju Massacre.

Tension leading up to the massacre began after the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee in late 1979 which sparked hope among the younger generation for political change. Much to the people’s disappointment, Gen. Chun Doo-hwan filled the power gap with a militaristic administration backed by U.S. support. Interestingly, the film ignores this controversial fact, perhaps to avoid a negative portrayal of the U.S.

Chun Doo-hwan’s bloody administration began with a declaration of martial law in a 1980 coup that included a media blackout across the city. The martial law shut down universities and Parliament, and involved the arrest of opposition leaders across the country. University students and citizens of Gwangju took to the streets in protest.

From May 18 to 27 of 1980, the military detained, tortured and killed hundreds of civilians, most university students. This intense moment in Korean history rendered Gwangju as a symbol of people power for democracy by standing its ground against a savage, military authoritarian government.

“A Taxi Driver” focuses on Jurgen Hinzpeter, a German TV reporter played by Thomas Kretschmann, who was recognized for his footage of the Gwangju massacre. Hinzpeter was stationed in Tokyo, Japan where he worked for the German broadcaster ARD. He headed to Seoul after hearing reports of unrest. Sa-bok Kim, played by Song Kang-ho, was his arranged taxi driver from Seoul, transporting him to the locked-down city of Gwangju.

Kim successfully brought Hinzpeter in and out of Gwangju to bear witness to the brutal military attacks. Kim was able to pass through the military cordon that surrounded the city, making Hinzpeter one of the few foreign correspondents to document the mass murder and broadcast the footage across the world.

Director Jang Hoon prioritized the factual basis by showing the relationship between Hinzpeter and the taxi driver while staying true to the actual political unrest in Gwangju. Despite the script being drastically simplified by Uhm Yoo-na and Jo Seul-ye, the story helps foreign viewers grasp the true tragedy of the event along with its political context.

The movie ended with a recording of Hinzpeter revealing his desire to see his taxi driver, Kim, again. Though his final attempt to reconnect with the Seoul cabbie was unsuccessful, he still deeply desired to see a new Korea while riding in Kim’s taxi where he could witness a more tranquil Korea. Hinzpeter recently died in 2016 and was laid to rest in Gwangju where he could permanently reside in a more peaceful image of the city that had once showed him only blood and violence.

Since its release in early August, “A Taxi Driver” has become a leading film of 2017 and was nominated for a 2017 Foreign Language Film Oscar. “A Taxi Driver” is playing in all CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles and Buena Park, and at AMC Fullerton 20 and is available in both Korean and English.

Editor’s note: Following release of “A Taxi Driver” in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in ordered his defense chief to launch a special probe into a military crackdown against the 1980 pro-democracy protests in Gwangju, specifically to verify whether the then military junta considered a possible air strike.

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