This article contains spoilers!
Amid recent popularity of South Korean cinema in the west, such as the hugely successful Parasite by Bong Joon-ho (which is definitely worth the watch), I wanted to highlight a film much less known in the west - A Taxi Driver / 택시운전사 (2017). Directed by Jang Hoon and written by Eom Yu-na, the film contrary to its cheery poster depicts events in Gwangju, which took place over a week in May of 1980. A Taxi Driver is a brilliant film - intense, deeply moving, and does a great job of weaving several deeply interconnected personal experiences into one cohesive narrative. However, the topic of the film remains interesting in-of itself; for the historical event it depicts has a shockingly poor sense of awareness world-wide. I’m going to take a shot at explaining what’s going on in A Taxi Driver, to hopefully expand the experience for western viewers of this incredible film, and then discuss a little about the film itself and thoughts on it’s relevance today.
Having said this, I do think it’s completely valid, and perhaps, advised, to watch this film without a shred of understanding of the events - and that’s exactly what the two protagonists of the film are working with. I knew nothing about this event prior to watching this film, and it definitely deepened my experience in disbelief at what I was watching. You get a real sense of what it must’ve been like to be Thomas Kretschmann’s character, and it’s much easier to connect as a result.
I would think Jang Hoon made this film with the understanding that a large amount of it’s intended audience would have cultural knowledge of this event, so feel free to keep reading to get a primer on that understanding. It’s up to you!
A Short Korean History 101
This is a bit of a whistle-stop tour of Korean history from the end of WWII to the date A Taxi Driver is set, and it’s pretty quick - so strap in.
Following the end of World War II, Korea had a succession of military backed authoritarian presidents. This was established by South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee, who was given the platform to take power by hidden support of the U.S.’s military’s chain of command, including Douglas MacArthur, on the basis of having an ‘inside man’ looking after South Korea - a significant benefit to the U.S. given the rising concerns around budding Communism in Asia at the time.
Syngman Rhee presided over South Korea from 1948 through to 1960. Rhee, although not inherently evil, did little to improve South Korea’s economy or living conditions through his terms. Following an election where Rhee’s opposition died immediately preceding the election, Rhee achieved 100% of the vote by default. Incensed by this un-democratic injustice, the April Revolution took place after the discovery of a body of a student killed by police in protests against the election. The April Revolution (fueled by the election injustice and a long-standing dissent against autocratic rule) led to large protests, which forced the resignation and exile of Syngman Rhee to Hawaii. Following this, a short-lived ‘Second Republic’ was established, which was promptly military coup d’état’ed following the failure to make any significant change to the laggard economic situation under Syngman Rhee. This coup installed Park Chung-hee, who promptly started another authoritarian term from 1961 to 1979. Chung-hee was assassinated in October of 1979, with a laundry list of potential motives which are still disputed today. His assassination created a power vaccum, which was capatlised on by Chun Doo-hwan, an army general who installed a puppet president Choi Kyu-hah. Doo-hwan then in turn arrested General Jeong Seung-hwa on allegations he was involved in the assasination of Chung-hee, and the resulting conflict ended with Doo-hwan seizing power and pushing his puppet aside in the closing days of 1979.
What’s important to note here is that we have highly similar political conditions at this time as the end of Syngman Rhee’s reign, with the end of a long-term authoritarian regime and the apparent beginnings of the next. Due to the extended authoritarian control, dissent of this power structure existed around Korea particularly in university students more aware of global politics and democratic conditions elsewhere. Protests commenced in many spots around Korea expressing their desire for democratic leadership, and we have an ex-military General with the reins, trying to control the situation. Thus sets the stage for the plot of A Taxi Driver.
If you don’t want the rest of the film spoiled for you, go watch it now! You know enough for a pretty solid understanding of what’s about to happen and why. If you continue to read I assume you’ve either seen it or don’t mind spoilers.
A Taxi Driver
A Taxi Driver depicts the events of the Gwangju Uprising (or what is probably more appropriately termed a massacre) through the eyes of a Seoul taxi driver, played by the ever incredible Song Kang-ho. Song’s character, Kim, is blissfully unaware of political ongoings in his country and views the protests in his home city of Seoul as ‘university students wasting time instead of studying’. Kim doesn’t question the political environment and justifies this through his experiences working in Saudi Arabia, which he views as a veritable hell compared to his life-style in Korea. As not everything is black and white, Korea experienced enormous economic development under the early years of Chung-hee, and it would be absolutely understandable to believe your situation is much better than elsewhere, especially for someone like Kim who likely gets little exposure to events and political conditions outside Korea. Aside Kim is Thomas Kretschmann’s character, Jürgen, who is a German reporter who has snuck into South Korea upon rumours of increasing conflict. He hopes to document events, and for his actions he becomes a hero of the students and democratic supporters - demonstrating the power of independent press in political struggles.
Tragically, Kim’s illusion is shattered at the experience of the ROKA rapidly increasing their acts of violence to suppress the protestors in the city of Gwangju. These protestors, born of the high population of university students in Gwangju, reached a critical mass that many other areas of Korea never reached, despite protests occurring in other areas of Korea, such as Seoul (as is shown right at the start of the film). This escalated to the point of outright firing live ammunition into crowds of protestors, which some estimates suggest killed potentially two thousand or more of mostly university students. This is shockingly extreme. A Taxi Driver never actually mentions how many people died. No doubt enforced by Chung-hee, these events really happened. The official death toll stands at 170 as per the martial law command at the time, but this is clearly disputable.
Who’s heard of this?
This abhorrent use of violent force to suppress democratic movements is sadly not uncommon. This event is strikingly similar to the events at Tiananmen Square, nine years later. What’s interesting here is that Tiananmen Square is an event that, at least in my experience, is brought up almost every anniversary. It’s not like we all have a minute of silence, but at least the vast majority of people I talk to actually know what it is. I’ve yet to met another person who actually knows of Gwangju, myself included until I’d seen this film. Many less-biased estimates for the death toll on Tiananmen Square place it at around two to three thousand. Sure this is more, but not significantly. So why is Tiananmen Square so much more widely known in the west?
I don’t have any answers here, and I’ve done zilch academic research into this topic, but I’ll propose a couple of hypothesis:
- Widespread propaganda in the west and especially in the U.S.A. about how ‘bad’ the CCP is (regardless of the truth) makes events that appear to be a rebellion against the CCP the perfect poster child of the anti-CCP agenda in the west. China, as a communist nation, exists then and still does today as a natural enemy of capitalist power-structures, and as a result of this finds itself made example of in the west as how not to run your country. It doesn’t matter that this specific event was really about democracy and not communism, but CCP = Communisim, so therefore that must be the root of all evil - according to the capitalists. As a result of this, the news gets spread like wildfire as evidence to prove their point. Events happening in South Korea, as a relative ‘friend’ of the US (for reasons mentioned above), has no benefit to ‘stirring the pot’ so to speak - so those in power just don’t. It exists as headlines for one day, and that’s the end of it.
- The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 were widely broadcasted around the world at the time it happened by a multitude of broadcasters. This ‘in-the-moment’ coverage may have had a significant impact in increasing knowledge of the events, and the fact this took place nine years later likely increased the viewership of such broadcasts with a higher prevalence of television sets in homes. As ‘A Taxi Driver’ itself depicts, there was extremely limited coverage, and it was delayed.
Additionally to note, as at the time of writing, a similar event is ongoing in Myanmar. We’ve had reports of torture and violence strikingly similar to that of the events depicted in A Taxi Driver, and reports of casualty numbers at around 50 or so. This almost certainly is some multiple of this number. This is happening today. Don’t just ignore that report, take notice and understand what’s happening, because in all likelihood it’s as bad as or worse than this film depicts.
A Taxi Driver is an incredible film that depicts a hugely important event in South Korean history, and it left me speechless. Give it a watch.