A Taxi Driver is a fictional movie loosely based on real-life events that occurred during the 1980 Gwangju Genocide. A widowed father and taxi driver, Kim Sa-Bok, drives a German reporter, Peter Hinzpeter, from Seoul to Gwangju to cover the uprising. The film was directed by Jang Hoon and produced by Park Eun-kyeong. The film was released on August 11, 2017 and generated $1.5 million in the United States’ box offices and about $88.7 million in South Korea’s box offices (Rotten Tomatoes).
In this paper, I delve into the background regarding the Gwangju Uprising and the story of the journalist, Juergen Hinzpeter, and the taxi driver, Kim Sa-Bok. After this, I analyze the effects of blockbuster films and human rights by comparing the events in the movie to the events that happened in real life. I raise the question if the fictionalization of events discredits the people who have experienced these events in real life and whether it takes away from the audience’s educational experience. In order to delve into this question, I analyze the film A Taxi Driver.
BACKGROUND ON GWANGJU UPRISING
In October 1979, President Park Chunge Hee was assassinated by his own spy chief which led to the declaration of martial law in South Korea. Students and citizens of the southwestern city on the Korean peninsula, Gwangju, responded with organized protests against the military government beginning on May 18, 1980 and ending on May 27, 1980 (Jang, “The Gwangju Uprising: A Battle over South Korea’s History). The protesterers numbered in the tens of thousands but were violently repressed by General Chun Doo-hwan’s military. Brigades of tanks and helicopters resulted in numerous deaths and injuries to civilians. During the regime, Chun strictly controlled mass media so it is impossible to give an accurate number of those killed and injured. The government destroyed all visual records of the incident (Sang-hun, “In South Korea, an Unsung Hero of History Gets His Due”).
ABOUT JUERGEN HINZPETER AND KIM SA-BOK
Despite the fact that the government restricted all visual materials concerning the Gwangju Uprising, including domestic television broadcasts and local newspaper reporting, the regime was not able to completely block foreign journalists’ access to Gwangju. Juergen Hinzpeter, a German reporter, snuck into Gwangju twice: once on May 19th, and a second time on May 23rd. Hinzpeter recorded the horrific scenes that included massacres and peaceful protests turned violent. When Hinzpeter left Korea, he first aired his recordings in Germany, and but were also broadcasted in Japan, United States, and the United Kingdom. Hinzpeter’s videos helped piece together the events that occurred during the deadly week of the Gwangju Uprising. In 1987, Chun agreed to a democratic overhaul, including fair elections. Ironically, Chun was subsequently convicted of sedition and mutiny in connection with the 1979 coup and the Gwangju killings (Nohchool, “Gwangju Video and the Tradition of South Korean Independent Documentaries.”).
It is known that Hinzpeter did not work alone to collect this highly important footage. Hinzpeter relied on taxi driver Kim Sa-bok to drive him from Seoul to Gwangju. The reporter was known to have had a longstanding relationship with Kim that dates back to five years before the uprising. Kim’s son, Kim Seung-pil, states “My father accompanied reporters with the foreign press under a reservation system. It appears that it was through those foreign reporters that his connection to the democracy movement was established.” Upon Hinzpeter receiving his second Song Kun-ho Press Award he stated how he wished he could “meet again with the brave taxi driver Kim Sa-bok.” (Min-young, “Real-Life Heroes of ‘A Taxi Driver’ Pass Away without Having Reunited.”). Unfortunately, in 2016 Hinzpeter passed away without ever getting the chance to reunite with Kim (Min-young).
Although A Taxi Driver is based on real life events, there is plenty of fiction (mainly at the end of the film) within the movie in order to attract bigger audiences. There are many fictionalized and dramatized events that distract from the historical counts of the Gwangju uprising and suppress the hardships endured by the Korean citizens in the 1980s. Some of the fictionalizations that the movie portrays is that the cab driver did not travel to Gwangju for the money but he knew the reporter for five years prior (Yea-Ji & Lee). Additionally, the movie ends on a happy note with Peter receiving recognition for his footage of the uprising and Kim continuing his taxi career until death. However, according to Kim’s son, this was not in fact the case. Kim’s son, Kim Seung-pil, mentions the fact that following the Gwangju uprising, his dad developed a drinking problem afterwards, which ultimately led him to fall to liver failure and pass away in 1984 (Min-young).
THE IMPORTANCE OF BIG FILMS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Cinema has been an important tool in Human Rights because it generates an emotional participation of the viewer and also presents a load of truthfulness to the audience. Viewers tend to believe that the information contained in the films show what has actually happened and offer a reliable narrative to the events that occurred (Grubba, “Cinema, Human Rights and Development: The Cinema As A Pedagogical Practice.”). Stories help engage our brain and help people better remember certain events rather than simply stating a set of facts. Films such as this one were able to create such a big effect because they played into the two key aspects of effective storytelling. These include capturing and holding the audience’s attention, and “transporting” the audience into the characters’ world. It can be extremely vital and important to have high-grossing films display past human rights violations in order to bring awareness and education to past struggles (Zak J. Paul. “How Stories Change the Brain.”).
A key example of A Taxi Driver captured the audience’s attention and transported the audience into another world was the scene where the military tanks started to shoot the protestors despite the fact that they were waving a white flag to indicate their surrender. By showing this violent and gruesome scene, it made the audience see the horrors that took place in Gwangju and sympathize with the events Gwangju citizens had to endure. By showing helpless, terrified people being shot down along the streets of their hometown, it sucks the audience in and allows them to experience the pain and fear that the protestors endured and truly helps them understand the catastrophe of the uprising.
A Taxi Driver is by far the most-viewed and highest grossing film that addresses the Gwangju uprising. Additionally, the film also includes high profile actors in the production including Song Kang-ho who is arguably South Korea’s best known character actor, and Thomas Kretschmann, a high profile actor in international film productions. The film attracted more than 12 million viewers of all age groups. South Korea’s president, Moon-Jae, attended a special screening of the movie at a local cinema in Seoul, accompanied by Edeltraut Bramstaedt (wife of Hinzpeter), and Song Kang-ho which also attracted national attention to the movie. With all of these factors in mind, it raises the question of is cinematic dramatization okay if it draws more attention to the uprising and educates more people about the events that occurred in the 1980s even if it obscures or omits important parts of the story? That question remains unanswered and the line still remains unclear. According to a handful of scholarly articles, it is important that a big blockbuster film such as this one occurs because it adds to the audience’s knowledge of the protests and the essential role of images in the controversial politics of the democratisation movement (Shim, “Cinematic Representations of the Gwangju Uprising: visualising the ‘New’ South Korea in A Taxi Driver.”)
Additionally, the release of A Taxi Driver also increased the amount of viewings in other films and documentaries relating to the Gwangju uprising (Yea-Ji & Lee). However, where does the film industry draw the line between entertainment for the audience and educational/sympathetic support to those that endured the violence? Film can persuade, educate, entertain, inform, and is relied on to document, explain, expose, or complicate global human rights issues’ according to the US political scientist, Safia Swimelar. As argued by Professor Sharlene Swartz, there needs to be further research in the area of film in relation with Human Rights. Human rights films bring together the humanities and social sciences and encourage general public engagement with real-world issues (Swartz, “Transformation through Human Rights Film.”). Undeniably, there are multiple benefits to blockbuster films to increase awareness of past events, but despite the pros of filming movies like this, there are concerns of fictionalizing these events for the benefit of the movie industry.
THE HARM OF BLOCKBUSTER FILMS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Big-blockbuster films such as this are important in many ways as they help draw attention to major global events that have occurred. However, by fictionalizing the events and trying to form a happy ending for the audience, it also distracts from the hardships that citizens had to endure and the lasting effects following the uprising. Despite the fact that South Korea did end up creating a democracy and Chun’s actions were brought to light, there were still loved ones lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and violent demonstrations that caused psychological effects.
For instance, the end of the film closes with Kim driving his taxi while smiling at a newspaper of Hinzpeter who had received an award for his contributions. Kim states how much he misses his friend and drives off; the movie then ends. By doing this, it makes it seem that both Kim and Hinzpeter both are in an extremely positive place in their lives and that Korea is once again back to normal. However, this was not the case. As mentioned previously, Kim suffered major post traumatic stress from what he had witnessed during the uprising that took a toll on his physical health and his relationship with others around him. Kim died rather quickly after the genocide in 1984 mainly due to his addiction of heavy drinking that he had developed. Additionally, Kim’s son expresses that he did not have the best relationship with his father due to alcoholism which created a wedge between the two. The real story paints a very different picture than what the audience is given at the end of the movie. A Taxi Driver tries to show that everything is all better and that the events of the past are behind them, when in reality the citizens involved in the uprising suffered psychological toll (Min-young).
In studies conducted since the uprising, evidence has been found that victims have experienced posttraumatic stress disorder that resulted in ongoing medical problems, psychological problems, and financial hardships (including difficulty holding a job). The effects of the Gwangju Uprising left a lasting toll on people’s wellbeing and financial independence. It is described that the Gwangju Uprising was “like a pebble dropped in a pond, the death of a child or parents in May 1980 caused ever widening ripples, shattering the lives of family members as well” (Lewis and Byun, 2003, p. 54). These psychological effects were not discussed in A Taxi Driver and disregards these very real and prevalent hardships that citizens experienced after the uprising had taken place (Choi, Sheena).
When we have films such as A Taxi Driver that ends the film very differently than what reality showed, what does this teach the audience? Many viewers of this film use this as their main source of education about the Gwangju Uprising and by not summarizing all of the events properly in order to create a feel-good ending for the audience, it tends to disregard the hardships that many Koreans experienced during this difficult time. Big, blockbuster films like A Taxi Driver arguably should be the most accurate with the information of these events because they attract the most attention and most media. So, by not mentioning the lasting psychological effects, destroyed businesses and homes, and honoring the people who have died at the end of the film, it allows the audience to feel as though all had been resolved, when in fact that was not the case. Cinema can provide an academic environment in which collective experiences of learning can be shared, which is why it is so important to state the factual events in order to honor those who have lived through the horrific events and educate the audience to the best of their abilities (Grubba).
I argue that A Taxi Driver is a significant and important film, despite the obvious flaws that paint a different picture to the actual events that have occurred. It offers the general audience a deeper look into the uprising that is not very well-known to the public. Especially with the Gwangju Uprising, there is not a substantial amount of information regarding this event in history thanks to the destroyed media and suppressed media during this time.
Although there are some historically inaccurate representations during the film, A Taxi Driver still captures the overall horror that occurred in Gwangju during this time. By highlighting the brutalities of the dictatorship through the scenes of mass killings and overcrowded hospitals riddled with dead bodies, it shows the audience the devastating and horrific events that occurred in Gwangju. Additionally, the film also did an excellent job of showing how the media was suppressed during the uprising and how little people knew about the events taking place so close to them. Lastly, I believe the actors did an incredible job of embodying the characters and demonstrating the emotions that the Koreans must have felt during this time. Their acting drew the audience in and offered a deeper and more personal connection to the film which helped viewers really connect with the events that occurred.
When combined with other historically accurate writings, films, etc relating to the Gwangju Uprising, A Taxi Driver provides a great general idea into the uprising and allows viewers to experience the events in a deep and personal way, therefore making the film important and significant to Human Rights studies.
Although I have come to the conclusion that A Taxi Driver is a historically important film, I question how we can keep these conversations about these events alive. How are we able to keep awareness of the horrors of the Gwangju Uprising? In a way, I believe that these questions are up to the audience members and how much emotion films like this spark. Films like A Taxi Driver have the ability to reach thousands of people, and my hope is that they will take the time to reflect on the fact that these were real people who experienced these traumas and horror and work to honor those who fell victim to these horrible events.
A Taxi Driver. Jang Hoon. The Lamp, 2017.
“A Taxi Driver.” Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/a_taxi_driver_2017.
Choi, Sheena. “Protesting Identity: Memories of the Kwangju Uprising and Effects on Identity Formation of Youths.” Files.eric.ed.gov, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1088346.pdf.
David Shim (2021) Cinematic Representations of the Gwangju Uprising: Visualising the “New” South Korea in A Taxi Driver, Asian Studies Review, 45:3, 454-470, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2020.1837071
Grubba, Leilane. “Cinema, Human Rights And Development: The Cinema As A Pedagogical Practice.” CINEJ Cinema Journal [Online], 8.1 (2020): 87-123. Web. 13 Nov. 2021
Jang, Se Young. “The Gwangju Uprising: A Battle over South Korea’s History.” Wilson Center, Wilson Center History and Public Policy Program, 17 July 2017, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/the-gwangju-uprising-battle-over-south-koreas-history.
Min-young, Choi. “Real-Life Heroes of ‘A Taxi Driver’ Pass Away without Having Reunited.” Real-Life Heroes of “A Taxi Driver” Pass Away without Having Reunited : National : News : The Hankyoreh, 14 May 2018, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/844517.html.
Nohchool, Park. “Gwangju Video and the Tradition of South Korean Independent Documentaries.” The Review of Korean Studies 13 (2010): 187-214.
Sang-hun, Choe. “In South Korea, an Unsung Hero of History Gets His Due.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Aug. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/asia/south-korea-taxi-driver-film-gwangju.html.
Swartz, Sharlene. “Transformation through Human Rights Film.” HSRC, 2013, http://www.hsrc.ac.za/en/review/hsrc-review-march-2014/human-rights-films.
Yea-Ji, Min, and Lee Hana. “Korea.net.” Documentary Revisits ‘A Taxi Driver’ Story : Korea.net : The Official Website of the Republic of Korea, 18 May 2018, https://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=159120.
Zak J. Paul. “How Stories Change the Brain.” Greater Good, 17, December, 2013 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain.
Jessie Frank is a Political Science major with minors in Human Rights Studies and Legal Studies at UNC Asheville and serves on the editorial board.