In 1979, after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, Chun Doohwan became the de facto leader of South Korea having led a successful military coup. To consolidate his power, he declared martial law, arrested opposition leaders, and locked down universities. The military cracked down particularly hard on the residents of Gwangju, a city in Jeolla-do Province. Jürgen Hinzpeter, a German journalist stationed in Japan, heard about this and decided to visit the city. He enlisted the help of Kim Sa-bok to get him safely from Seoul to Gwangju and back again through military checkpoints.
The screenplay is very clever in that it manages to supply enough information to inform even the most ignorant of viewers without ever feeling like a dry history lesson. Its choice of lead characters is equally clever in ensuring that the film is accessible to all. Kim Sabok represents the ordinary Korean who tries to avoid the protests and does not know the severity of the situation due to the government censorship. He is portrayed by Song Kang-ho, one of the most highly acclaimed Korean actors. Jürgen Hinzpeter represents the non-Korean world. Thomas Kretschmann (a German Liam Neeson look-alike) is entirely believable as this fearless, kindhearted reporter. Gu Jae-sik, a student who acts as Jürgen Hinzpeter’s guide and interpreter, represents the Gwangju protestors. He is endearingly portrayed by Ryu Jun-yeol.
Although the outside world learned about the Gwangju Democratization Movement thanks to Jürgen Hinzpeter’s reporting, Koreans were kept in the dark by Chun Doo-hwan who remained in power until 1988. One Korean told me that, as a student, he and some friends managed to get hold of a video tape of the original footage, but had to watch it in secret for fear of reprisals. Another said that she knew little about the protests at the time. And even though she learned more about it over the years, watching the “A Taxi Driver” enlightened her even further.
Much is made of South Korea’s economic development, but its political development has been equally impressive. From 2016 to 2017 massive protests—dubbed the Candlelight Struggle—were held across the country against (and for) President Park Guenhye. These protests were remarkable not only because they led to the impeachment and removal of a president representing the majority party, but also because they were relatively peaceful. “A Taxi Driver” was released a few months after the Candlelight Struggle concluded and clearly spoke to the nation as it became the highest-grossing film in South Korea in 2017. Therefore, if you have not done so yet, do yourself a favor and hail Kim Sa-bok’s cab to take you on a journey to Gwangju.