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Pre-Screening Discussion

The conceptual questions outlined above are complex and intended to help instructors introduce the film and lead class discussion after students have watched the film. In simplified form, they can also serve as pre-screening discussion questions that prime students to watch the film analytically:

  1. How is political protest represented in cinema and in the media? What recent examples of such representations can you call to mind?
  2. How do films about the past make claims to authenticity? Why?
  3. How do you deal with historical inaccuracies in movies? Do you discount them because movies are entertainment? Have you ever watched a historical film and later learned that it got something wrong? Does this change your engagement with the film?
  4. Why are films about historical events made and remade? What hold does the past have on us? What happens when we retell stories about the past? Might we say that movies about the past are also, in a way, about the future?
  5. How do you become engaged when watching a historical movie? What strategies do films use to make their content approachable to viewers?
  6. As you will see in the film, fake news is not a new phenomenon! What happens when the news is not true? The film is about falsified reports of an event in the 1980s and an attempted cover up. The false narratives from that time are periodically called up by right wing figures in contemporary South Korea. What false narratives have you noticed? How are they used by politicians? How do you respond to them? Can a really well-made film about a sensitive subject “set the record straight”?
  7. Finally, a slightly lighter question. South Korean pop culture is hugely popular—what sort of South Korean continent have you consumed? Based on your experiences, what do you expect from a popular Korean film starring a popular actor?

After a brief discussion, students will be ready to watch the film critically. Noticing details that pertain to the questions above as they watch will further equip them to analyze the film in a post-screening discussion and any related writing assignments. Some things to watch for:

  • Claims to history/authenticity/truth
  • Hinzpeter’s camera
  • The South Korean domestic news media
  • Kim’s relationship to the protest
  • Excessive emotion
  • Children and parents
  • National iconography
  • How are soldiers represented?

How to Write About a Film 

The first step to writing (or talking) analytically about a film is watching the film attentively. The questions in the previous section are intended to focus students’ attention on “big ideas” that the film engages with, but it’s also important for students to notice details that pertain to these larger problematics. Rather than approaching a film with preconceived notions of what it will mean, students should watch (and later, write) critically, aware of their assumptions and attentive to moments that deviate from what they might expect.  

David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephens’ Writing Analytically is an excellent textbook resource for writing about film and informs the approaches and exercises in this section. Though the authors don’t focus on film, the book works through multiple examples of visual analysis and provides clear, helpful advice for writing. My own craft improves every time I teach with it. The approach and exercises presented here are inspired by years of teaching with this book. One of the book’s most helpful distillations of what is means to think analytically is the simple framing: “Although X appears to account for Z, Y accounts for it better” (154). This approach adds tension to the argumentation, allowing students to develop a nuanced argument that can account for contradictions and anomalies in the film. 

For example, if a student is most interested in function of news as a source of trustworthy information, they might expect that A Taxi Driver celebrates journalists as truth tellers and write an essay that demonstrates how the film repeatedly lionizes Hinzpeter. The film certainly celebrates Hinzpeter, but as explained above, it is ultimately a fictionalization of events that is not entirely truthful. Upon learning this, a student might choose to write about all the moments in the film that are contrived. Neither one of these essays will be very interesting and neither one will tell us very much about “how” the film means. Rather than thinking about the film in terms of “either/or,” it’s most productive to consider such contradictory meanings in tension with each other. Tweaking the approach form Writing Analytically, we might say, “Although A Taxi Driver misrepresents the historical Hinzpeter’s experience in Gwangju, the film is actually a complex examination of how ‘authenticity’ is produced and who produces it.” Let’s see how we might analyze key scenes from the film in detail to make the case that the film is as interested in “history” as it is in “historical representation.”  

The most effective way to get to a more complex argument is to shift from “what” (content) questions to “how” (form) questions. Writing about film works most effectively when visual analysis supports an original argument about film form. Writing about film form demands attentive, analytical viewing and facility with film terminology. First, let’s deal with attentive, analytical viewing. Close attention to specific moments in the film allows students to tease out tensions and complexities rather than regurgitate generalizations. It’s very unlikely that a film congeals exactly as expected and careful viewing will reward us with curious anomalies ripe for analysis. The goal is to observe details and figure how they work together in the film to make meaning. Writing Analytically calls the practice of organizing evidence into patterns and contrasts “The Method.” Collecting “data points” and thinking about how they relate to each other (as patterns or contrasts), allows students to “induce” what the film means. Inductive reasoning relies on details to develop a general argument (deductive reasoning begins with a general argument). Shifting from deductive to inductive reasoning when writing about a film will help students avoid producing argumentation that is repetitive and predictable. If students begin with an obvious claim, “A Taxi Driver is not accurate in its depiction of Hinzpeter’s time in Gwangju; it’s bad history,” they can come up with a relatively straightforward and boring essay that proves this claim multiple times. In this situation, we can push students to think about how the film portrays Hinzpeter and what this portrayal accomplishes. If the film veers away from facts, what “truth” does it represent? Why might this be the case? 

In the following section, we will work through the steps of formulating an argument about A Taxi Driver’s relationship to history. First, we will consider several exercises that can help students organize their observations about the film and begin developing arguments. Each exercise can be performed in class as a group activity or assigned as homework. In either case, I have found it helpful for students to maintain an online text document in which they keep a record of notes pertaining to each exercise. As the student’s thinking about the film evolves, this “journal” maintains a record of their work and helps them scaffold more complex arguments, and ultimately, essays. While throughout this module, I will refer to the final product of film analysis as an “essay,” it’s important to note that the exercises and analytical approaches presented here are foundational to multiple modes of intellectual expression. Producing engaging podcast episodes, videos, presentations, posters, etc. about a film relies also on watching critically and thinking analytically. 

Key film terms will be marked in bold—a glossary linked here (insert link) offers definitions of these terms with screenshots and clips from that illustrate them. The glossary is not exhaustive, but should be adequate for an introductory class. A more exhaustive list of film terms can be readily found on Yale’s Film Analysis website. David Bordwell’s Film Art is a classic textbook that defines terms and provides excellent examples of visual analysis. 

  1. The analytical process begins before we watch the film! 

The module includes a list of questions to consider with students before they watch the film. Instead of attending to each question exhaustively, I suggest that teachers choose questions based on their syllabus. Which questions resonate with themes you’ve already covered? Does the film present a complimentary or opposing (or both) viewpoint to materials that you’ve already covered? It’s likely that your class does not concern East Asian history, but there are many themes in A Taxi Driver that intersect with issues pertinent to life in contemporary America. 

Have you screened historical films or discussed the politics of historical representation? Has the media’s role in reporting and representing political protest come up? Have you dealt with stories about “outsiders” whose intervention in a foreign situation is heroic/shameful/problematic?  

Such an in-class discussion will allow students to approach the film with some personal/intellectual investment in its main issues. Upon watching, they can discover continuities between the material you’ve already covered and a new, initially unfamiliar, film. 

  1. The analytical process continues as we watch the film! 

For our purposes, watching a film consists of two things: the film itself and the experience of viewing the film. Watching the film itself analytically means students should pay attention to the film form, the how. The how includes both visual elements and narrative structure. When students think a detail is significant, they should note it down. For example, if we are interested in the role of the news media, we want to take note of scenes that represent reporters, newspapers, cameras, televisions, etc. What details do we notice? How do these scenes fit into the film? How do they read against each other? 

Ask students to take note of four or five scenes that catch their attention. What stands out as significant? What doesn’t make sense? An anomaly can be very productive for analysis, because it invites us to think more deeply about what is going on in the film. Students should make note of the scene’s context and jot down some details that they notice.  

The environment in which we watch the film is also important, especially since all three films considered in our modules are box office hits that are now accessible in the US mainly as streaming titles. It’s not always possible to watch a film together in a cinematic screening. Nevertheless, I encourage in-class film screenings because they offer a unique, communal experience of a film. The audience in a cinema is rarely entirely silent. We emote, sometimes verbally, as we watch a film. A film screening is not only a great way to focus attention on the film, but also a way of “sensing” the audience response to the film and feeling oneself as part of that audience. A Taxi Driver is a thrilling, tense film that many, many people watched in the cinema. What kind of knowledge can students glean by paying attention to the “vibe” in the room? By contrast, if students watch alone, how do they experience the film? Where can they turn to validate/express their emotions and reactions to the film? When does their attention drift? Considering these questions might not always explicitly contribute to writing an essay, but it should get students thinking about how the circumstances of watching a film might alter their relationship to the piece of media they are consuming. 

  1. After watching, students should return to their notes and begin “unpacking” the moments in the film they consider to be intriguing.  

It’s ok if it’s not initially entirely clear why a given moment is striking. Conversely, it’s important not to write off a moment because it’s “obviously” significant. To figure out precisely what is happening in a given sequence, we need to return to it and watch it again, carefully. What makes this moment significant? How does it relate to the rest of the film? Does it stand out because it clashes with what we have seen, is it an amplification of something that occurred in an earlier moment?  

To begin, students can choose two to three moments in the film from their notes. To watch these scenes again, they will need access to the film, ideally, the entire film. If that is not possible, you can provide students with a selection of clips from the film that they can choose from.  

Writing Analytically suggests a “10 on 1” approach (103-108) that asks students to choose one example from the “whole” (in this case, a single scene from the film) that is representative of the argument they are beginning to formulate. As the authors note, “10” is an arbitrary figure that simply denotes multiple observations about a single example (103).  

In a film class, students would be asked to conduct a shot by shot “sequence analysis” of the significant scene. Such an assignment, the bedrock of film analysis, calls for students to identify each shot, describing its length, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, sound, and what happens in the shot. This can be a time-consuming exercise, because the average shot length in a contemporary film is only a few seconds. The benefit of recording this information about each shot, however, is that students will notice many details. The sheer amount of time necessary to complete a sequence analysis (potentially hours of work for minutes of film) is a testament to the amount of information that is jam packed into a film. Watching closely focuses attention on the way the film is put together. 

For a more approachable exercise for beginners, let’s combine some aspects of sequence analysis and the “10 on 1” approach to analyze a sequence that takes place during the rooftop scene in which Hinzpeter films a giant crowd of protestors clashing with police. 

CLIP @ 51:20 to 52:45 


  • Hinzpeter, who was just warned that the government will hunt him down if they find out he has been filming the protests, lifts his film camera in a medium close-up shot 

  • Diegetic sound of crowd and protest and drumming (protestors use traditional drums as part of the protest) that seems diegetic but is too loud, suggesting it’s non-diegetic sound, added to the scene later to evoke the drums that would be on the street 

  • Point-of-view shot shows what Hinzpeter is looking at, the street below, which is filled with soldiers dressed in black rushing at the protestors (who remain offscreen), two armored vehicles are shooting off canisters of tear gas 

  • High angle shot of soldiers beating protestors who are trying to flee 

  • Handheld shot of scene below, appears to have some “zoomed” shots because in between cuts, the scale of shots changes from extreme long shot to long shot/medium long shots that focus on individual altercations 

  • Low angle shot of Jae-sik looking onto the scene, concern on his face, followed by a point-of-view shot to street, then cut back to Hinzpeter with the camera 

  • Grainier shot of soldiers beating protestor in a long shot with dark bands on either side of the shot, denoting a different aspect ratio from the film’s original widescreen 

  • Cut to a long shot in the film’s original aspect ratio of the same scene (happens again) and then cut to a close-up of Hinzpeter’s camera 

  • Medium close-up of South Korean reporter with photo camera next to Hinzpeter 

  • High angle long shot of soldier beating an older man in traditional attire 

  • Medium close-up of Jae-sik, Hinzpeter, and Kim, who has just gotten up from the ground to see what is going on, then cut to extreme long and long shots of street 

  • Medium close up of Kim, cut to close up of Jae-sik, cut to an over-the-shoulder shot from behind Jae-sik, looking onto Kim and saying he wants to join the protestors, Kim advises against it 

The list of “observations” above does not include all of the shots in this relatively short sequence (more than thirty shots in about one and a half minute of film), but it does give us a sense of the sequence’s complex presentation of vision.  

Having gathered these observations, students should notice patterns and contrasts that appear in the scene. For example: 

  • Recurring shots of the camera and point-of-view shots from Hinzpeter and others on the roof looking down on the chaos in the street below 

  • Extreme long shots of the crowd interlaced with long shots of individuals being beaten by police 

  • “Newsreel” type grainy footage in a 4:3 aspect ratio shown multiple times, initially with a cut back to the film’s high -resolution widescreen, also, there is a cut between grainy footage and close-up of the camera 

  • Hinzpeter, Jae-sik, and the South Korean reporter are all watching/recording what is happening with concern; Kim finally joins them and is immediately worried about safety, the other men decide to go down (“How can I just watch?”) while Kim insists they should stay 

Vision is key in the sequence, multiple shots call our attention to the act of looking. Recording is equally crucial—we see the scene below in both the “film” version and a “news” version. The film repeatedly shows cameras, both film and photo. We also see a multitude of people in extreme long shots and individuals being beaten by police framed more tightly. The shots seem to linger a bit on these “individual” beatings. Finally, we have a group of men who are engaged in the politics of the protest and one outsider, Kim, who is initially not interested in looking at all, and when he does see, he is adamant that they should stay on the roof. The reporters and Jae-sik, however, have seen the action from afar and rush down.  

The next exercise calls for students to pick several of the most significant observations they have made and keep pushing deeper. For example, let’s focus on the following points and consider how they represent the role of Hinzpeter’s camera. 

  • Hinzpeter, who was just warned that the government will hunt him down if they find out he has been filming the protests, lifts his film camera in a medium close-up shot 

  • Hinzpeter’s role as a journalist is foregrounded by the camera 

  • The close up of the camera also signals that Hinzpeter has privileged access to a device that can film (the South Korean reporter has a photo camera) 

  • The warning he just received highlights that as a journalist, especially a foreign journalist with a camera, he is conspicuous and vulnerable 

  • The camera is both a source of power and a potential liability 

  • Handheld shot of scene below, appears to have some “zoomed” shots because in between cuts, the scale of shots changes from extreme long shot to long shot/medium long shots that focus on individual altercations 

  • Although there is not a literal zoom, because the editing alternates between longer and slightly closer framings of the protest, there is a sense of getting closer to the individuals on the street 

  • These shots recur throughout the sequence, with the most devastating beating taking place near the end of the rooftop scene when the men notice an old man getting viciously beaten by a soldier 

  • The handheld camera suggests that the film is showing us what Hinzpeter is filming, so the film “overlaps” with Hinzpeter’s footage, giving us a sense that we are seeing what he actually saw 

  • Grainier shot of soldiers beating protestor in a long shot with dark bands on either side of the shot, denoting a different aspect ratio from the film’s original widescreen 

  • The shots look like newsreel footage, especially since the more square aspect ratio is used for television broadcasts, increase of “authenticity” 

  • Upon closer examination, they are not actually newsreel footage, but rather footage shot for the film and made to look “authentic” 

  • The South Korean reporter is taking photos, but the film does not cut to still images that look like photos, meaning that whatever documentary record that character produces is not as important as Hinzpeter’s recording 

This is a lot of information. How can we narrow it down and focus in on an argument? At this point, drafting an analytical description of the scene is a good exercise. When students use the details that they have observed and organized to write a description of what happens in the scene, they are already writing analytically. 

Analytical Description 

In a crucial scene, Hinzpeter is on a rooftop with his camera. A medium close-up shows him lift the device to his eye and start filming. In a high angle point-of-view shot, we see what he is looking at. Soldiers are attacking protestors as they run away. This is not documentary footage, yet the point-of-view shot suggests a certain parity between Hinzpeter’s camera and the film’s own. The shot’s high angle perspective matches the view from the roof and the camera even moves, as if held by (Hinzpeter’s) hand. After several shots that cut between Hinzpeter and the protest below, the film cuts to Jae-sik, showing him looking down on the protests in a low angle shot. Suddenly, when the film cuts back to the protest below, the perspective is no longer Hinzpeter’s but Jae-sik’s. It is now a South Korean looking on. A few shots later, the film cuts to the South Korean reporter who, like Hinzpeter, is aiming a camera at the scene below. Again, this shot is followed by a cut back to the crowd below. Another South Korean point of view. Yet, despite visually acknowledging the South Koreans as observers of the scene below, the film privileges Hinzpeter. 

At a certain point in the sequence, the shots of the street below change in quality. Several times, they appear grainier and the film’s aspect ratio changes. These shots look like actual news footage, as if Hinzpeter himself witnessed this precise moment and captured it on film. But after the first “news” shot, the film cuts back to the same exact scene in its original aspect ratio and resolution. This is obviously not archival footage, but a scene filmed for A Taxi Driver and later digitally manipulated to look like 1980s news footage. Curiously, while the grainy “news” footage is clearly identified with Hinzpeter’s camera, the photo camera that the South Korean reporter is not treated the same way. The film does not cut to still photos, as if those taken by a South Korean reporter. The “authenticity” of this moment is mediated by Hinzpeter’s device, a device that could transport the footage outside of South Korea and onto television screens abroad.  

There is slippage between registers here, between the historical record (Hinzpeter’s actual footage) and the footage shot for A Taxi Driver, a commercial film. By conflating the two types of footage, one real and one staged for the production, A Taxi Driver explicitly highlights its function as a historical record in this sequence. Although in the sequence several point-of-view shots position South Korean characters as observers of the scene below, the film cuts back to Hinzpeter and his camera most often. He is in command of filming and his technologically mediated point of view is foregrounded in the film’s editing and cinematography.  

Here are some questions to consider as such a description evolves into a longer paper: 

  • How is Hinzpeter’s perspective different from Jae-sik’s or Kims or the South Korean reporter’s? What happens when the film shifts in perspective? 

  • What does the rooftop location do for this scene? What is more obvious from this perspective and what is missing? Does looking down on the scene from afar allow identification with the situation below? 

  • What is the role of technology in the sequence? What does the grainy footage do? How does it impact what we see below?  

  • And, as Writing Analytically so aptly puts it, “so what?” Why is this significant? 

  1. Once an argument begins emerging from these details, students can get to the work of producing a compelling and original “evolving” argument (per Writing Analytically). 

An argument about the function of the camera in the film is already emerging from the paragraphs of analytical description above, but this is one “data point.” Here, I have been making the case that while the film shows South Koreans looking onto the protest, Hinzpeter’s camera is the most privileged witness of events. The two concerned South Koreans can only assist Hinzpeter in capturing his footage. But this tentative thesis stops short—there are more sequences in the film in which Hinzpeter’s camera and footage play a key role. What are they?  

Having thoroughly analyzed one scene, students should perform the same exercises in relation to a second (and third) significant scene. Other sequences offer complicating evidence that needs to be accounted for in a rigorous essay. Such complicating evidence is not a hindrance to developing a strong film analysis, in fact, it adds tension and momentum to the argument. Consider for example, a scene that comes later in the film, when Kim returns to Gwangju to help Hinzpeter deliver his footage back to Seoul.  

In the rooftop scene, Hinzpeter’s camera is shown doing important historical work by exposing the truth to the world, but Kim is literally on the spot of the crime and seems not to notice it. Later in the film, Hinzpeter records the coffins and bodies of dead students in a hospital. By this point in the film, Jae-sik has been killed and Kim Man-seob has come around to supporting the protests. How does this scene read when paired with the rooftop moment? Why does Kim now see the tragedy? What role does the camera play in this scene? How does it mediate the relationship between the two men? Might we say that the previously indifferent South Korean character has gained agency over what is being filmed?  

What other moments in the film foreground Hinzpeter’s camera and footage? To what ends? A thorough essay does not have to answer every question presented in the materials above. In fact, it should not digress into every possible interpretation of a scene. Instead, each successive step in the writing process should help the writer narrow in on a precise argument. We started with the general claim that: “Although A Taxi Driver misrepresents the historical Hinzpeter’s experience in Gwangju, the film is actually a complex examination of how ‘authenticity’ is produced and who produces it.” 

We might now narrow in on: “Hinzpeter’s camera plays a crucial role in A Taxi Driver. It is visually privileged as a piece of technology that can record the truth and transmit it to the world. Moreover, while at first, the camera appears to be a foreign object handled by a foreign reporter, as the film progresses, South Korean characters become more involved in directing what is filmed and getting the footage out of Gwangju. While the film misrepresents the historical Hinzpeter’s experience in Gwangju, its dramatization of events aims to valorize the Hinzpeter footage as an authentic record of events that was produced by both the foreign reporter and the people of Gwangju.” 

General Tips 

  • Ask students to start by choosing a detail in the film that is significant to them, ideally a moment that they don’t quite know what to make of. The process of writing a film analysis is more (personally) rewarding when a student both generates a question and answers it with evidence that they have identified in the film. 

  • Ask students to provide screenshots of the scenes they are writing about. While streaming services sometimes prevent taking screenshots, it is legal to capture a still image from an online video.  

  • Film analysis demands careful attention and precise use of film terminology, but it’s a fulfilling and fun activity. Students should choose moments that excite them and learn how to explain what it is them that fascinates them about a give sequence.   

 A Taxi Driver in Comparative Perspective

  • The Attorney is a best-selling 2013 film inspired by a real events, a case in which a book club was accused of being North Korean spies. Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, both future presidents of a democratic South Korea, defended the students and teachers who were ultimately convicted of being spies. It is available for free on YouTube, linked above.
  • 1987: When the Day Comes is a best-selling 2017 film about the 1987 killing of a student activist and the government’s attempted cover up. Outrage at the incident contributed to the June Democracy Struggle. The film is also available on YouTube, but costs $3.99.
  • Xu Yong’s photobook Negatives is a record of the Tiananmen Protests of June 1989. The book features blown up negatives of his photos of the event and asks viewers to use their cell phone cameras with colors reversed to “develop” the images and examine them. An article with images from the book is available at the lensculture website here. The book itself is available relatively cheaply on Amazon. In includes essays that help contextualize the materials.

Supplementary Materials

  • There are numerous academic books about Gwangju and the Minjung Movement. Namhee Lee’s The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea is an intellectual and cultural history of the democracy movement.
  • The University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings has published extensively on modern Korea, including several books that are quite accessible to popular audiences like Korea’s Place in the Sun.
  • Without Leaving a Name Behind is documentary on Gwangju and Hinzpeter made by the South Korean broadcaster MBC.
  • The radical left American magazineJacobin recently published “The Heroic Gwangju Uprising Sowed the Seeds of Democracy in South Korea,” an account of the uprising by the Gwangju Democratization Movement Commemoration Committee, a group that collected testimonies of the events. The testimonies were translated and published in a volume titled Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea.