A Taxi Driver and the Gwangju Uprising

A few days ago I watched the new Korean movie Taxi Driver (택시 운전사), directed by Jang Hoon (who was an assistant to Kim Kiduk for many years). I was compelled to see this movie since I became aware that it was a true story about the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. Even though the movie is in Korean with no subtitles, I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see this movie on it’s opening night. So I gathered some friends from work and we went.

The opening of the movie is quite light hearted, as we follow the taxi driver, Kim Man-seob (played by Song Kang-ho, a regularly appearing actor in many great movies by Park Chan-wook e.g. Thirst), around the streets of Seoul. The juxtaposition of the opening with the latter parts of the movie may be deliberate on the part of the writer/director. It draws you in and lowers you emotional guard to what is a deeply harrowing story.

Short on money, Kim Man-seob decides to take a job driving a reporter, Peter (based on the life of the late Jürgen Hinzpeter) to Gwangju, a distance of roughly 300km. Unbeknownst to the driver, the city of Gwangju is on military lock-down and they have to sneak and bluff their way through. This is indeed true, the city was cut off from the rest of the country and no-one knew what was going on there.

On the 18th May 1980, students at the Chonnam National University began protesting its closure. This was met by force from 30 paratroopers. Within a few days and many escalations, the conflict reach a deadly turning point when ROK soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing and injuring hundreds of protesters. The government then blockaded the city and cut off telephone lines and other forms of communication. While inside the city the people declared Gwangju a ‘liberated’ city and had set up the Citizens’ and Student’s Settlement Committees and begun work negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims as well as organising funerals, public campaigns, traffic control, withdrawal of weapons, and medical aid.

Peter was the only foreign journalist in Gwangju at the time and was welcomed warmly by everyone. It quickly became clear to him that his pictures and films of the violence and oppression by the ROK soldiers against the protesters must be spread world wide to shine a light on the situation. Within Korea the reporting of the Gwangju protest was highly biased towards the government side, and in fact the most informed Koreans were those living in Germany (there was and still is a large Korean community living in Germany), where the news of the Gwangju massacre first broke.

The movie and the real life story of Gwangju is about the coming together of people against a tyrannical rule; taxi drivers acted at ambulances, house-wifes made and donated food, students and professors organized daily town hall style meetings to give everyone a voice. The movie is also a reminder to be cautious of our own government and the ‘official’ stories that they tell us. Unfortunately, as has been borne out of history, those who are in power will lie, cheat and even kill when that power or their legitimacy is questioned. Nonetheless, it must always be questioned.

[Interesting aside, while the reporter and the taxi driver are both based on real people, the taxi driver was never found by the reporter in real life after they separated. The real Jurgen speaks at the end of the movie, expressing his wish to meet him again. I wonder if, now that the movie and their story has spread, someone manages to find the illusive Kim Man-seob.]