Yes, I am talking to you.
Mr. Kim works as a taxi driver in Seoul. He is prepared for a fine day of work when he finds himself stuck in traffic. Apparently, the protest march is blocking the street ahead. He tries to find an alternate route to his destination, when a protester runs in front of his car, causing him to swerve and break a mirror. He does manage to get passengers, though: a pregnant woman in labor and her husband. He drives them to the hospital and they…forgot their money at home. But the husband gives him a business card and promises to pay double tomorrow. This day stinks.
Kim returns home that evening to find his 11-year-old daughter Eun-jeong with marks on her forehead. With no one else to look after her when he is away, Kim has his landlady babysit her until he gets back. However, her son, Sang-gu, does not get along with Eun-jeong, and they get into fights. So, Kim automatically suspects him even when Eun-jeong insists that she just fell down. Of course, the landlady has no patience for him, accusing Eun-jeong of injuring her innocent son and scolding Kim for letting his daughter run wild. And, also, he still owes 100,000 Won. 100,000 Won now is about $89, but I cannot really say how much that was 40 years ago. In any case, he leaves, shamed and humiliated.
Later, during dinner, he tells Eun-jeong that he will buy up Sang-gu’s house after he gets rich. In the meantime, she should not fight with him. She insists that Sang-gu started it, but Kim tells her that she has to learn to bear it; life is never going to be fair.
Jürgen “Peter” Hinzpeter has been working as a reporter in Japan for eight years and has been getting restless. At a Tokyo Press center, he meets a BBC reporter who has just arrived from South Korea. The reporter says that it is tense there, even more than usual. Martial law was just declared, several opposition leaders were arrested, and the universities got locked down. Since the other night, it has been impossible to get through to his contacts. While the other guys seem nervous, Peter is curious.
Peter is curious enough to fly there himself, under the guise of a missionary. He meets up with Lee, a reporter whom he had befriended last time that he went to South Korea years ago. Lee catches him up on what has been going on during the past three days of martial law and shows him a list of reporter guidelines. Much of it is standard censorship, but the ban on mentioning “Gwang-ju” catches his attention. What is Gwang-ju? It is a city in the south, Lee explains. He shows Peter a copy of the local Gwang-ju newspaper and a page is nearly blank. What happened? Lee doesn’t know. Someone was killed and that is it. The phone lines have been cut. The foreign press is focused on a political trial and have been heavily monitored. Peter decides to go to Gwang-ju. Lee is perplexed. How does Peter intend to get there?
Kim gets his mirror replaced, and pays the mechanic 4,000 instead of 5,000 on account of his having had a rough day. The mechanic complains about getting stiffed and also tells him to get the engine checked. This ticks off Kim, who gives him 3,000 instead of 4,000. He walks off to eat lunch discretely when he gets caught by another taxi driver, who is his landlord. The landlord takes him to a place that caters to tax drivers, offering to pay for lunch. Kim offers to pay instead…as long as the landlord could lend him some money. 100,000 won from his private stash. Yes, he wants his landlord to lend him 100,000 won to pay the rent that he owes to his landlord. Speaking of 100,000 won, they overhear another taxi driver bragging about being offered 100,000 won to drive some foreigner to Gwang-ju. That is all that Kim needs to hear and he sneaks off (without paying for the lunch) to find this foreigner.
Kim meets up with Lee and Peter, pretending to be the driver whom Peter had hired. He also pretends to understand English better than he does. Lee is suspicious, but he cannot really press as Kim hurries Peter into the cab. Lee and Peter say their goodbyes and Lee tells him to be careful. They drive off just a few seconds before the actual taxi driver shows up.
Kim sees that Peter is rather pensive, so he tries to engage in some small talk. Peter is not really in the mood for chit chat, but he reveals that he has been in South Korea before, and that he is from Germany. Kim tries to tell him that he has a friend who works as a miner there. Peter…sort of gets it; he knows there are many Koreans working in Germany as miners and nurses. Kim says that he worked in Saudi Arabia and then suddenly launches into a Korean diatribe about life there. Peter just wants to know how long it will take to get to Gwang-ju; he wants to get there quickly. Kim tries to act friendly, but he does not like Peter’s attitude.
As they get closer to Gwang-ju, Peter takes out a video camera. They eventually reach a “closed” sign in front of some barriers, which puzzles Kim. Peter tells Kim to make his way through as he films it. When they hit a military roadblock, Peter tells Kim that he cannot tell them that he is a reporter. Having now idea what is going on in Gwang-ju, Kim wonders if the soldiers are doing some training exercise. They tell him to turn back, so he does. Kim decides to just go back to Seoul, and Peter threatens to withhold all payment.
Kim tries to find an alternate way in. He finds a local farmer, who tells him to not even bother, but eventually points him to a back road. Unfortunately, there is a military checkpoint here too, though it is smaller. This time, though, Kim chooses to defy the soldiers, lying to the one in charge that his passenger is a businessman who needs to pick up papers in Gwang-ju, lest exports to the United States be jeopardized. Peter eventually figures out what Kim is doing and plays along, acting haughty towards the soldiers and threatening big problems. The soldier in charge relents and lets them through, but warning them that it is dangerous due to the rioters. This must have been the first time that Kim heard about Gwang-ju being dangerous, so when they are around halfway between the roadblock and the city, he stops and demands payment, or else he goes right back to Seoul. Peter gives him 50,000. Kim smiles, but utters some threats. Peter may not understand Korean, but he understands a nasty tone of voice.
They arrive in Gwang-ju to find it covered in trash and almost devoid of people outside. Kim is dumbfounded. He had seen protests in Seoul and the mess that they left, but nothing like this. Peter films what he can, especially the political banners, asking Kim what they mean.
They encounter a truck carrying a group of young men. Both vehicles stop in the middle of the road and Peter gets out. The men are curious to see a Seoul taxi and amazed to see a White man. With a camera. Peter asks them where they are going. The students elect Jae-sik to speak for them, as he knows some English. Jae-sik is a bit shy and a little intimidated by the camera. But he is game. Peter tells him that he is a reporter from Germany, the other boys are overjoyed. They are going to be on the news. And not the censored South Korean news, but foreign news.
Kim is annoyed to hear that Peter is a reporter. Sure, Choi had told the real taxi driver the deal, but Peter did tell Kim that he was not a reporter when they hit the big military roadblock, and Kim had apparently taken that literally. But, the men applaud him for driving this foreigner all the way from Seoul, so he swallows his anger and basks in the glory. Jae-sik tells them that they are going to the hospital. Peter asks to come along, particularly to interview one of the men who got a head injury. They tell Kim to come with them and he says that he will follow them in his cab. As Peter films them singing in the truck, Kim does a U-turn and tries to drive out of the city. 50,000 will have to do. Another 50,000 is not worth risking the car getting damaged again.
A woman tries to hail Kim as he drives past. He ignores her at first, but eventually backs up and lets her in. She tells him that her youngest son did not come home last night. She was told that he might be in the hospital; that a soldier had smashed his head. Kim tries to reassure her, but she says that the soldiers have gone berserk, beating and stabbing anyone who passes by. Kim cannot believe that. He was an army sergeant and no soldier would ever do that.
They arrive at the hospital in time to see another taxi driver refuse to take a passenger. Apparently, the would-be passenger is a newspaper writer and the driver is upset that he did not report on what has been going on. Other drivers refuse as well. Kim mutters that Gwang-ju taxi drivers must be rich if they are turning down fares. Then again, he does as well when the reporter runs up to him. He is busy helping out his current non-paying passenger find her son. Just as he is about to enter the hospital, though, a busted taxi speeds into the parking lot, carrying a badly wounded person. They walk past dozens of wounded people and the woman finds her son. Of course, it is the injured young man from the truck. And he recognizes Kim.
And here comes Peter and Jae-sik. Peter is furious at Kim for turning around instead of following them to the hospital as he said that he would. He had left his film bag in Kim’s cab and they had been driving all around looking for him. They go to the taxi and, sure enough, the bag is in the backseat. Kim tries to blame the men for driving off so quickly, but they saw him do the U-turn. One of the other taxi drivers ask if he really took off before collecting his fare. Fed up with all of this, Peter gives Kim the other 50,000 won, and tells him to go back to Seoul. Another one of the taxi drivers is appalled at the thought that Kim charged 50,000 just to come here. Jae-sik explains that he had already gotten 50,000, which just angers the other taxi drivers further. He got paid a ridiculous amount and tried to run off? One of them snatches the 50,000 and gives it back to Peter, and intervenes when Peter tries to hand it to Kim again. This is a matter of professional pride and human decency in general. Kim’s behavior has been shameful. Kim lashes out, about to start a fight, but is held back. Then, perhaps hoping to save face, he gives all of the money back to an exasperated Peter and invites him back into the cab.
Apparently, Jae-sik is coming too, as Peter has deemed him better at understanding English than Kim. Kim cannot believe this. Shouldn’t he be acting as a good student instead of making his parents worry to death about him? Make something of himself instead of risking being another hospital patient. Does he not know how good people have it in South Korea? Try Saudi Arabia. Jae-sik retorts that a country where soldiers assault citizens cannot be that great. Kim says that they would not assault the protesters if they simply stopped protesting. Jae-sik asserts that the foreigner understands what has been going on better than Kim does.
Kim misses the turn to go to the main gathering, but he claims that he needs gas. He goes to the station and asks for 3,000 won’s worth. Hearing the attendant filling up the tank, he gets out, yelling that he will not pay any more than the 3,000 that he promised. The bewildered attendant asks him why he is upset that he is getting more gas than he thought he would when the gas is free. Well, he could have gotten a full tank, but forget it. Jae-sik smirks at him and Kim flicks Jae-sik’s face.
Why is gas free? As Kim drives towards the actual destination, Jae-sik explains that the taxi drivers in Gwang-ju have been transporting wounded protesters, risking arrest as a result. Kim is puzzled; taxi drivers cannot pick and choose their fares. That’s just it, says Jae-sik. The people of Gwang-ju have done nothing wrong to be suffering like this.
As the car drives further, the city becomes less and less deserted. More people are walking down the street.
Jae-sik guides Kim to an open area that is steadily filling up with people as a woman talks over a loudspeaker. Jae-sik yells at the people in front of them to make way; that there is a news reporter who came all the way from Seoul. The masses around them burst into applause and make a pathway, smiling and waving as Peter films them. A young woman comes up to the car and gives some food to Kim as another gives some food to Peter. Peter films people dancing and chanting.
Peter wants to film the protest from a higher vantage point, so they find a side street and get out of the taxi. Kim covers up the car, saying that Jae-sik will have to pay for it if it gets scratched. They make their way onto the top of a building to find that local reporter already there, taking photographs. The reporter introduces himself to Peter, in English, as Choi, and expresses surprise that anyone could have made it into the city past the roadblocks. Jae-sik and the two reporters look over at the crowd gathering in the street below as Kim eats his free lunch.
Choi tells Peter that the Korean press is not allowed her and foreign press is not allowed. If they find out that he is in Gwang-ju, then they will hunt him down as well as those who have been helping him. Kim doesn’t hear the warning or understand it. But whatever. It is just a bunch of rabble yelling down there. Nothing is happening.
There are several loud bangs, like a huge drum being hit over and over. Military vans shoots gas canisters into the crowd of protesters as hundreds of soldiers run at them. The soldiers attack the protesters with batons, kicking them and dragging them away. Some hit whoever they run into, while others gang up on individual protesters. The youth. The elderly. Everyone within striking distance gets struck. Kim looks on in horror and bewilderment. What is happening?
Jae-sik says that he is going down there. He cannot just stay up here and let it happen. Kim doesn’t understand. What difference will it make if Jae-sik is up here or down there? Peter wants to go down as well. Kim says no. Down there is danger. Peter says that Kim can stay, but the two of them are going down. Kim points to Choi; he is taking pictures up here in the safety of…oh, he is going down there too. Well, no staying up there now; Kim goes down there as well. And, as he feared, it is mayhem.
This movie had shaping up to be a funny little buddy comedy up to this point. It is not funny anymore.
This movie is loosely based on a true story, once suppressed, now notorious. As the opening text of the movie states, the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee in October of 1979 left a power vacuum in South Korea, allowing previously repressed democratization movements to regroup and gain steam. Army general and chief of the Defense Security Command Chun Doo-hwan seized military power from acting president Choi Kyu-hah through a Coup in December.
There were protests all around and the military government responded with repression, particularly in May. But South Jeolla Province had historically been a hotbed of political protest, so clampdown was particularly harsh there, including Gwang-ju, which was then the capital city. In protest to the closing of Chonnam National University, about 200 students showed up at the gate on the morning of the 18th of May, confronted by 30 paratroopers. Eventually, a couple thousand protesters and hundreds of soldiers clashed. A 29-year-old deaf man named Kim Gyeong-cheol was beaten to death, which led to more protests by more protesters. And the military responded with deadly violence. Massive violent repression took place until the 27th, when the military finally defeated civilian militias and quelled the protests. The official death toll was 144 supposed rioters, 22 troops, and 4 police. Critics of the Chun administration argued that there were between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths.
The media downplayed the death toll and blamed the supposed riots on violent Communist thugs. Despite this, word eventually got out and anger over the incident inspired protest movements in other parts of South Korea. Chun Doo-hwan was able to serve out the entirety of his term while resisting calls for reform. His successor was Roh Tae-woo, who had helped Chun during the Gwang-ju Democratization Movement. Roh tried to distance himself from his predecessor when he became president in 1988. He would eventually get his as well, though.
Taxi drivers had been key players in helping the protesters in Gwang-ju. And there was even a taxi driver from Seoul who managed to transport a German reporter into the city to film the violence. And that is the focus of this movie.
The South Korean right (and especially the South Korean alt-right trolls) may downplay the Gwang-ju Massacre’s devastation and play up the violent Leftist elements of the protests. But much of the country sees it differently. It is seen as a blight on the country’s modern history. Over the years, there have been many South Korean movies that mention the massacre, though most tend to focus on the aftermath and generational trauma, how it twists the psyche of the characters and leaves them mentally broken or how subsequent generations have to pick up the pieces. The 2005 film May 18 is the only other movie that I know of that focuses on the Gwang-ju Massacre itself. It is okay, but I prefer A Taxi Driver.
The story is…very very fictionalized. Some of it was necessary due to extenuating circumstance that I feel would be a littler spoiler-y if I talked about them. There were aspects that were fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Sometimes the movie goes a little overboard. There is when sequence that, when I first watched the movie, I hoped was real because I thought that it was some tropey nonsense. It turns out that it was fiction, but I am more accepting of it this time around. The changes may irritate many, and they kind of irritated me at first, but I now feel like they were done not simply to give the movie a narrative thread or character arc, but to say something about the South Korean people like how No One Killed Jessica did with the Indian people.
It may have been nice to make someone like Jae-sik the protagonist, but the movie would not really have gone anywhere if it focused solely on people who were against the government from the start. It would be much more impactful to show someone being for the government at the start and turning against it by the end. But, there were probably few people who were like that who also had a major impact on events. So the taxi driver Kim became the South Korean everyman.
Kim’s situation makes it easy to sympathize with him. His wife became ill and he spent so much money to pay for her medical bills, becoming a taxi driver to keep up. When she died, he was left with a young daughter to take care of and still in debt. Yet he still tries to maintain a sunny disposition, knowing that each day has the possibility of being the day of his life. On the other hand, Kim’s behavior can make it pretty difficult to sympathize with him. Yes, he may be struggling financially, but he is always trying to cheat others out of money while accusing them of trying to take his money. While he tells his daughter and the protesters to avoid getting into conflicts even if the other party is the aggressor, he himself is quick to aggression when people call him out on his less than exemplary behavior. He likes to puff himself up to be the good guy, but tends to chicken out when the chips are down. A military man, he is quick to forgive anything that the government does, even when it looks highly suspect. He is dismissive of those who protest the government oppression, claiming that things are worse in Saudi Arabia, as if that is of any relevance. And when the government does things that inconvenience him personally, he blames the protesters for provoking such actions, and his only worries focus on how the unrest will affect his financial prospects. He plays the hero, but true heroism bewilders him. He is egotistical, he is vain, he is greedy, he is selfish, he is South Korea. And South Korea needs to open its eyes.
Pairing the colorful Kim with a straightlaced Peter may be a conventional choice, but it works. Peter is seen to be languishing in a politically boring Japan, and the turmoil in South Korea gives him something to report on. At the same time, he is probably driven by a sense of justice. He does not simply want the big stories or the lurid stories; he wants what the government does not want him to want. The movie does not focus on it, but Jürgen Hinzpeter spent the first 8 years or so in Nazi Germany; he knew life under a cruel dictatorship. Growing up in Lübeck and Hamburg, he was a stone’s throw away from Communist East Germany after the war. So, his life has some parallels to South Korea of 1980. He does not understand the language and does not quite get the culture, but this serious no-nonsense White Man manages to befriend the locals of Gwang-ju much easier than Kim. They see Peter as a savior, and Kim as this jerk taking advantage of him and giving them all a bad name. He is not simply the standard White Man in an Asian movie, who comes in and provides an objective outsider’s validation of the insider’s narrative; he is the only one who can get that narrative out to the outside world.
South Korean films are known for blending genres, but I still found it to be an interesting decision to frontload a movie about such a painful event in modern history with a dollop of comedy, mostly at the expense of Kim. The polka-esque trot music in the background really sells the silly tone while reminding Korean audiences what the nation’s artistic expression was like back then. It is like he is in another world, apart from the serious business of what is really going on. But when the serious part hits, it hits hard, and there are few comedic moments in the second half of the film. I guess that it helps to present the event in a rather conventional movie manner. Yes, that makes it more predictable, and maybe less accurate a story, but it makes it a more effective movie.
The movie shows South Korea as a flawed nation at war with itself. Kim is a person who believes that he is good, but has to repeatedly confront his faults in order to overcome them. By the end of the movie, South Korea is far from overcoming its faults, but has developed the tools to make sure that they can get to work to progress to a better place. Is it naïve to think that bad people can see the error of their ways and do good? Is it naïve to think that the ignorant merely need to be shown the truth to know better? Maybe. True justice does not happen overnight and the damage of injustice can spread quickly. The international community may have found the story disturbing, but it is doubtful that those of the anti-Communist camp would have done anything…and there is a possibility that countries like the United States helped with the repression. Surprise surprise. That Chun Doo-hwan was able to remain in power through his term without giving in to the protests suggests that simply getting the truth out there is not enough. But it is a start. One must keep fighting; sometimes the wait is necessary and ultimately worth it. And by the end of it, maybe one may become the hero that one has wanted to believe one could be.
At the time that this film was being produced, South Korea was led by a conservative government under President Park Geuh-Hye. She is the daughter of the right wing President Park Chung-hee, the one who was assassinated before the events of this film. There are maybe two movies about that incident too. In any case, her administration did a lot of terrible things, but was able to keep going until the scamming sham shaman scandal came to light. The people protested and protested until she was removed. Five months later, this movie was released. As I see it, it could not have come at a better time. A movie about a country aching for change for a country on the verge of change. It was the second highest-grossing film in South Korea that year. Was it because it turn one of the most disturbingly violent and brutally traumatic national events in recent memory into a conventionally accessible and formulaic movie? Perhaps. But it was a really good movie.
WTF ASIA 135: Chandni Bar (India: 2001, approx. 144 minutes)
WTF ASIA 136: White Sun (Nepal: 2016, approx. 88 minutes)