Gunsmoke clouds the air. Blood-curdling screams interrupt bursts of automatic weapons fire. Rows of soldiers, faces hardened, advance towards a disintegrating mass of protestors.
“There’s spies in the crowd”, the soldiers have been told.
Just moments ago, thousands of civilians—brothers, fathers, daughters, sons—stood facing the troops. Now they stand no more. Running, diving, injured, dead—soon, only silence and corpses remain.
This isn’t a dystopian nightmare. It’s South Korea, birthplace of K-pop and Kimchi.
In May 1980, the South Korean government killed hundreds of civilians in one of the nation’s most tragic events: the Gwangju Massacre. If it weren’t for my grandmother’s quick thinking, my dad could have been one of those victims. I had no idea about any of this—until I watched A Taxi Driver.
Released a year ago on August 2, 2017, A Taxi Driver earned both critical acclaim and box office success, becoming the sixth-highest grossing South Korean film of all time. The movie is based on the true story of a taxi driver who evaded military blockades to ferry a German TV journalist to and from Gwangju city, allowing the outside world to learn the truth about the massacre.
When the movie first came out, I didn’t notice. Though it was an important turning point in modern Korea’s democratization, I didn’t even know about the Gwangju Massacre at the time.
As a Korean-American who immigrated to the US at age nine, I wasn’t exposed to much Korean history, let alone Korean cinema. Sure, I read many children’s Korean history books, but by the time I hit my formative years, Korean history was the last thing on my mind.
That changed when A Taxi Driver entered my life.
Watching A Taxi Driver
One day, out of the blue, my father quietly suggested we watch A Taxi Driver together.
Growing up, I never spent much quality time with my dad. He’d always come home late from work, and I’d be too busy playing games. Now that I’m older, I’m more keen for us to bond—so we sat together on the couch and streamed the movie on TV.
At first, A Taxi Driver felt light-hearted, with only bits of sadness sprinkled in. However, it quickly turned somber and brutal. It is now one of the few movies I’ve cried at, especially during a scene where the German reporter stares—utterly devastated—at dead civilians in a hospital.
As we watched, my dad kept sprinkling in tiny comments—“that actually happened,” “they did do that”. He seemed antsy, as if he was anxious for me to absorb every second of the movie.
When the movie ended, I finally asked with slight exasperation, “So how much of that was historically true?”
My dad’s quick and proud answer: “90%”.
While the movie fictionalized some details to create better narrative flow, its key elements have basis in reality. A taxi driver named Kim Sa-bok really did ferry a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter to and from Gwangju. As the movie depicts, taxi drivers in Gwangju actually used their cars as barricades against bullets, and ferried the injured to hospitals—earning them significant respect from Gwangju citizens like my father.
Most importantly, the Gwangju Massacre (as my dad emphasized in Korean—compared to the more euphemistic English terms like “Gwangju Democratic Movement” or “Gwangju Uprising”) was really as brutal as the movie depicts.
But like those Marvel movies with surprise clips after the end credits, A Taxi Driver also gave me a surprise—of a more personal nature. As the credits concluded, my dad made a quick remark: “You know, your aunt and I were in Gwangju when this all happened.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
My mom, who overheard us in the next room, interjected to lighten the mood: “Well not exactly—your dad escaped to the countryside just in time! If he hadn’t, you might not even be here!”
We had a moment of morbid laughter.
“But your aunt stayed through the entire time,” my dad noted.
My Aunt’s Story
I called my aunt at 11:45pm… 3:45pm the next afternoon in South Korea. She picked up after about 20 seconds, as if pausing to wonder why I was calling. She answered in a surprised voice. It’s not that she and I are on bad terms; we just talk so infrequently. The last time we spoke was in 2015, when I briefly visited Korea.
After explaining how I watched A Taxi Driver and heard from my father that she was in Gwangju at the time, I asked if she could recount her memories. She paused again, then laughed awkwardly and admitted that she was indoors most of the time, and wasn’t sure if her story would be relevant. I reassured her that I’d love to hear her account regardless.
Even though the Gwangju Uprising officially started on May 18, overall unrest began earlier—though my aunt casually recounted that she didn’t think it was all that serious.
On May 2, 1980, my grandmother came down from Gokseong County to visit—it was my aunt’s birthday. This was all before the military erected barricades, preventing any traffic from entering or exiting Gwangju.
My grandmother had a different take on the situation. Once in Gwangju, she sensed something was wrong and decided to send my college-aged uncle and high school-aged father into the Gokseong countryside. She’d heard rumors that the military was targeting young, able men.
My father and uncle left for the countryside around May 16.
Since my aunt disagreed with my grandmother about the situation’s seriousness, she continued to work in her job as a tax collector. Given I’d cried at A Taxi Driver, it was very strange to hear her so adamant about how calm and collected she felt at the time.
Two days later on May 18, the military cut all communications methods and erected barricades around Gwangju. It’s around this time A Taxi Driver’s story begins, when the protagonist driver dodges military checkpoints to enter Gwangju. The movie also shows how the driver desperately tries to call his daughter in the evening, only to be told that the phones cannot reach anywhere outside Gwangju.
Despite increasingly bloody protests and dangerous unrest, my aunt remained steadfast in her belief that the situation wasn’t all that severe—until one day, she received a phone call from a co-worker: the government building she worked at has been completely demolished and burned down in the crossfire. In complete disbelief, my aunt walked out to where she used to work, for buses and taxis weren’t in service by that point. A pile of ashes greeted her.
“This Was Real”
My aunt paused for a long moment. I waited nervously for her to continue.
“I felt so empty,” she finally sighed with a hint of regret in her voice, “That’s when I realized this was real.”
She stayed indoors after that moment—even if she wanted to work, there was no work to go back to. Just like A Taxi Driver shows when the driver and Hinzpeter spend the night at another taxi driver’s house, my aunt dimmed the lights when possible and nailed heavy comforters to the windows as a first line of defense against stray bullets.
My grandmother, however, went out every day to gauge the situation and buy groceries. Where she found the courage to do that is beyond me. As my aunt remembers, by that time there were people screaming for help in the streets and corpses laid out in a government building for loved ones to identify.
Then, one early morning, bursts of heavy gunfire and artillery woke my aunt.
“I thought then, ‘this is it, we’re dead,’” she recounted.
After what seemed like an eternity, the gunfire stopped.
It was May 27, which marked the final stand of the Gwangju citizen militia that had gathered in the provincial office.
After the Massacre
My aunt received orders to go back to work on May 29. However, since her original office building was burnt down, she had to relocate to a new building. Even then, there wasn’t any work to do for few weeks because all the tax documents were burned too.
When phone lines to Seoul were finally re-established, her friends there believed that she was swept up in a communist ploy, that she was a North Korean spy. It was insult upon injury. She felt betrayed, but understood why her friends thought that way—that was how the government-controlled media portrayed Gwangju at the time, as a hotbed of communist rebellion.
“Still,” my aunt sighed with annoyance, “You wouldn’t believe how many people still resent Gwangju for ‘failing under outside influence’ and ‘creating unruly riots’ to this day.”
The Impact of A Taxi Driver
When A Taxi Driver came out in 2017, it swept South Korea’s box office and became one of two movies that broke 10 million viewers that year. Moreover, the film sparked huge political debates and a resurgence of interest in Korea’s democratic movement.
This was perhaps aided by outrage at the movie’s unmentioned antagonist: Chun Doo-hwan. A former general who rose to power in a coup d’etat, Chun was South Korea’s military dictator during the massacre.
To my surprise, apparently he’s still alive as a free man—and he really doesn’t like A Taxi Driver. Soon after the film’s release, Chun’s former secretary conveyed the old boss’ distaste for the movie.
“It is a fabrication that soldiers shot unarmed Gwangju civilians,” Chun’s secretary Chung Du-jin stated in an interview with Korean broadcaster SBS. “There might be room for a legal response if there are malicious distortions and hoaxes related to taxi drivers.”
Whether you’re Korean or not, that should scare you. Like with the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, there will always be those who deny merciless killings of innocent people. It angered me to see this was also the case in Korea.
But A Taxi Driver gives me hope.
Chun Doo-hwan might hate the movie, but audiences across South Korea and beyond gave it a warm reception. Even if you’re not Korean: it’s a poignant film that provides an opportunity to learn about how cruel dictators can be, how suppression of journalism can lead to historical denial, and the true costs of democratic struggle.
Even though I wasn’t directly involved, the piece of history that A Taxi Driver represents—the Gwangju Massacre—now feels like a part of my personal story. The film gave me an opportunity to learn a part of my family history that I didn’t even know existed before. Perhaps it did the same for countless others.
A Personal History
Movies like A Taxi Driver have a special power. They help us explore the past, and understand history on our own terms. Most importantly, they force us to ask important questions that become portals to understanding not only ourselves, but also those closest to us.
There are still so many questions that I wish I had the answers to after watching A Taxi Driver. Why did my grandmother continue to go outside day after day in May 1980, despite seeing the carnage? What did she think every time she saw the corpses?
Unfortunately, my grandmother is no longer with us—I can only imagine what I could’ve learned if I had the chance to speak with her. However, my dad and aunt are still here, and for that I’m now more thankful than ever.
As a Korean-American who never paid much attention to the “Korean” side of my heritage, I thank A Taxi Driver for opening my eyes.
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