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Historical Context

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This section provides historical context that is key to understanding South Korea’s political history, including a brief review of colonial history and its memory, the Cold War, and the politics of memory in contemporary Korea. I suggest that teachers become familiar with this material and use it as necessary to supplement teaching and class discussion of the film. Key terms appear in bold face.

Korean History and Cinema

Moving images were first introduced in Korea in 1903, just two years before the country became a protectorate of the Japanese empire. Korean filmmaking took off in the 1920s and 30s, but since the country was colonized by Japan, the film industry was closely monitored by the Japanese authorities. Propaganda films like the 1938 Military Train, a caper about sabotage of the Japanese railways, fed the Japanese narrative that Koreans were best served by being loyal to the empire (linked here with subtitles in English, with original subtitles in Japanese still visible). Since the liberation, Korean cinema has returned to the colonial period multiple times; in his excellent book, Parameters of Disavowal: Colonial Representation in South Korean Cinema, Jinsoo An explores how cinematic representations of this historical time period vary depending on the political context in which they were made (the book is available open source in the link). Cinema, in other words, has been an incredibly important cultural site in which South Koreans negotiate their relationship to history.

When analyzing historical film, while factual accuracy is one consideration, the most productive questions ask what sort of historical narratives are produced and why. Immediately after the liberation, reevaluating the colonial period was an intense topic in the context of founding a new Korean nation and rejecting the Japanese colonial narrative about Korea. In the postwar period, national division changed the stakes of this representation since how to be properly Korean was now complicated by the existence of two competing states. In 1965, a treaty normalizing South Korea’s relations with Japan had a dramatic impact on a South Korean culture that was at once anti-Japanese and yet also nostalgic for the empire. The first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee was strongly anti-Japanese and worked to prevent the treaty. The next ruler, Park Chung Hee, the nation’s authoritarian ruler from 1961 to his assassination in 1979, had been an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army and was famously fond of Japanese culture. The film The President’s Last Bang, a 2005 dark comedy about his assassination famously lampoons him for his Japanese tastes. The film was controversial when it came out, years after South Korea’s democratization. Footage was even ordered to be cut from the film after Park’s son brought a suit against the director. This ruling has since been overruled, but it gives us a sense of how delicate historical memories remain in contemporary South Korea.

Although rapprochement with Japan was difficult and Japanese media content was censored until the 1990s (so as not to seduce South Koreans who had only just been liberated from Japanese cultural influence), the relationship with Japan was crucial to South Korea’s economic growth in the postwar period. So was the country’s role in supporting the war in Vietnam. Both the normalization and the war integrated South Korean with the Japanese and American markets. Many scholars of Korean culture and history draw attention to this new period’s resonance with Japanese imperial visions of Asia, only now, the United States was the liberator/imperial power. Japan, after all, packaged its imperial ambitions in narratives about liberating Asia from Western colonialism. During the Cold War, the United States promised freedom from communist oppression but supported regimes that were not at all free, including both South Korea and the Republic of China, i.e., Taiwan. This incredibly complex geopolitical and cultural situation makes South Korean historical films particularly fascinating. How do films navigate the many layers of history and memory while responding to the political context in which they are made and consumed?

A Taxi Driver, for example, is part of a larger body of films that represent the 1980s Democracy Movement, known in Korean as Minjung, translated literally as “the people” or “the masses.”  Films about the period’s democracy protests have been made since the late 80s, when the democratization of South Korea allowed filmmakers to address questions that the former regime censored. While it is based on a true story, the version of Hinzpeter’s coverage of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 the film represents is not entirely accurate, sometimes deviating from Hinzpeter’s own memoirs. Hinzpeter was not the only reporter in Gwangju and while his footage was significant, it was not the first footage that aired internationally. The film doesn’t comment on these other reports, ending with a claim that Hinzpeter “exposed” the truth about the brutal regime and risked his life to do so. In his own account, Hinzpeter was not physically threated while shooting footage in the city while other foreign correspondents were (Jackson 27)! The film, however, fully embraces a heroic narrative that privileges Hinzpeter over others who were in Gwangju. Why? Scholar of Korean studies Andrew Jackson argues that the Hintzpeter myth originates with a 2003 documentary and remains potent because it legitimizes Gwangju as a heroic origin of contemporary progressive political projects:

“…the narrative helps support the vision of a progressive struggle at Kwangju. Hinzpeter’s role as star witness has proved vital to the defence of this political identity in modern South Korean politics, so much so that his burial at Mangwŏn Dong Cemetery represents a virtual canonization, a statement that his testimony is inviolable” (35).

But why is it important, in 2017, to emphasize that the Gwangju Uprising was a righteous struggle for democracy? To answer this question, we must briefly consider South Korean politics during the Cold War.


The Cold War & the “Commies”

After a bloody war with communist North Korea, South Korea was firmly established as an anti-communist state. The government, led by Syngman Rhee, was corrupt and authoritarian, but the new South Korean state was supported by the United States whose forces remained in the country after the war and are stationed there to this day. Throughout the Cold War, opposition to state power, whether literally communist or simply critical of the government, was routinely construed as potentially fatal to the existence of the nation. South Koreans, the government ideology went, lived under a constant communist threat. After the “hot” war ended, life in South Korea was dominated by Cold War anxieties. Left-wing politics were after all appealing to many people throughout East Asia, including in Japan, where left-leaning protests of the American military’s cozy relationship with Japan swept the country in 1960. In this context, South Korea was a frontier of “freedom” that needed to be protected, although the United States was often ambivalent about the south’s dictatorial rulers whose policies flew in the face of American claims of protecting freedom and democracy from communist threats. The country’s leaders may have been dictators, but the “commies” were only one Demilitarized Zone away and such proximity was threatening enough that stable rule was repeatedly valorized over democratic reform. While North Koreans certainly spied on the south and would not have been unhappy for the US-backed regime to fall, anticommunism was not merely a strategic geopolitical concern, but also a way of managing repressive politics at home. The label “commie” was applied to many people, some communists some not, who challenged authority. Many political dissidents were jailed and killed. Yet, despite such politically repressive conditions, South Koreans agitated for democracy at multiple points in the 20th century.

A “culture of despair” had developed in the 1950s during Syngman Rhee’s repressive tenure as president, but by 1960, the country was fed up (Lie 36). Election tampering to ensure that Rhee’s elite camp stayed in power led to first local and then national protests, culminating in a huge march in Seoul on April 19. In her book on the 1980s Democracy Movement, Namhee Lee identifies April 19 as South Korea’s first unfinished revolution, a prelude to what was to happen in the 1980s. While Rhee was ousted from power, a military coup on May 16, 1961 foreclosed on any hopes for democracy. Park Chung Hee assumed power and enacted policies that aimed to turn South Korea into a developmental state, an economic system that prioritized economic growth gained on the back of exploited laborers. While the country did develop rapidly in this period, frustration with Park’s repressive politics and exploitative economic policy grew. Unsurprisingly, South Korea’s labor movement was particularly important in the continuing struggle for democracy. Minjung was particularly suspect from the perspective of government authorities because its politics were quite leftist, even the name “the masses” suggested a people’s politics that sounded threatening to conservative authorities. Director Park Kwang-su’s 1995 film A Single Spark is a poignant representation of political protest related to labor. The film follows two men, a worker who self-immolated in protest of Park’s labor laws in 1970 and a journalist who is writing his story in the 1980s. The film’s opening sequence, depicting a large street protest, can (a) give one a sense of South Korean public protest culture and (b) show us how filmmakers in the 1990s represented a movement that had just resulted in democratic reforms. The film is available with English subtitles in the link above.

Park was eventually assassinated, but his regime was replaced by another military coup. Chun Doo-hwan assumed power in a coup on May 17th, 1980, arresting opposition politicians, closing universities, and declaring martial law to prevent opposition. Protests had already been brewing since Park’s assassination. On May 18th, a significant protest of Chun’s seizure of power broke out on May 18th. by May 21st, citizens took up arms and soldiers who were deployed to quell the protestors withdrew. Gwangju was under citizen control. On May 27th, however, Chun authorized the army to reenter and retake the city. They did so by force. There is no universally accepted casualty number, but estimates of deaths range dramatically, from 200 to more than 2000. The bodies of over 100 protestors were unceremoniously buried in a local cemetery, many dumped there by trucks. That site too became a place of political protest throughout the 1980s as mourners, especially the mothers of slain students, publicly expressed their grief in annual memorial ceremonies. Usually, Koreans conduct jesa, or memorials to their dead ancestors/family members, privately. In Gwangju, such ceremonies became public events that continually brought attention to a massacre that Chun’s government wanted to keep quiet.

The government narrative about the protest insisted that North Korean agents that infiltrated the city and encouraged people to protest: the brutal suppression was thus called for to prevent a potential North Korean takeover of the south. The government has not (to this day) released information that corroborates any claims regarding North Korean involvement. Despite this framing, reportage of the event, including news footage in which South Korean soldiers shoot South Korean citizens, was repressed throughout the 1980s. Chun’s government had predictably scapegoated the North Koreans, but still did not want to bring attention to what happened in Gwangju. Throughout the 1980s, however, the Chun government would continue to use the “North Korean spy” accusation to discredit, imprison, and kill democracy activists. Meanwhile, democracy protestors grew skeptical if not outright hostile to the United States, whose anticommunist stance and military presence in South Korea suggested oppression rather than the freedom and democracy championed by American foreign policy messaging throughout the Cold War.


A “New Korea”

Chun’s government was eventually peacefully removed in 1987 after a nationwide wave of protests against Chun’s plans to undemocratically extend his tenure as president, the so-called June Democratic Struggle. A democratic election split the vote between several progressive candidates and Chun’s successor, Roh Tae-woo, won but the election was not tampered with. There were, however, reportedly plans to tamper with the results should Roh not have won. The first opposition president, Kim Dae-jung, was elected in 1992 and assumed office in 1993. Chun himself was indicted for his coup and his role in the deadly suppression of protests in Gwangju in 1995 together with Roh. Chun’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison and then ultimately, to a fine. The dramatic reduction in punishment drew the ire of the public but was explained as a way of maintaining national unity. The implication was, of course, that despite the Gwangju atrocity, conservative politics were not uniformly condemned by all South Koreans and punishing Chun severely would have been too politically sensitive for the young democracy.

Even though the Gwangju Uprising is remembered as a groundbreaking and tragic fight for democracy, its legacy remains contested in South Korea. The uprising has been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage and is extensively memorialized. A cemetery for victims built by the government in the mid-1990s gives physical form to the narrative of democracy. Progressive politicians that came to power in the 1990s, including Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, participated in the Minjung Movement and their tenures oversaw much public discussion and cultural production (like films and plays) about events in the 1980s. Hard right figures, however, regularly undermine the legacy of the uprising and the democracy movement more generally, by maintaining Chun’s story that these events were manipulated by the North Koreans. This conspiratorial narrative is politically potent for the right because it delegitimizes the progressive parties that have emerged from Minjung activism since the 1990s. Snowdrop, a 2021 Korean drama, recently became the object of great controversy because the main character is a North Korean spy who is in fact involved in a political scheme in 1987, during that year’s pivotal democracy protests. Viewers noticed that the female lead, a South Korean student who falls in love with the spy without knowing he is from North Korea, shared a name with a woman whose husband was in reality accused of being a spy, imprisoned, and beaten by authoritarian forces. He subsequently died from malnutrition. The show’s creators changed the character’s name but insist that their drama is primarily a love story not a historical narrative. Outcry against the program, however, demonstrates that South Koreans are wary of the “North Korean spy” narrative that periodically emerges on the right. Se Young Jang’s “The Gwangju Uprising: A Battle over South Korea’s History,” a 2017 blog post prepared for the Wilson Center thinktank, summarizes the situation succinctly, pointing out that far-right claims about North Korean involvement are regularly met with law-suits. These claims are not substantiated and deserve censure. Hinzpeter’s footage, raw and visceral, showed students and ordinary citizens come together in Gwangju, depicting a city in unified democratic revolt not a North Korean action.

Unfortunately, many facts about Gwangju remain unknown. Documents are classified and the government is reluctant to share what could be inflammatory information. Upon seeing A Taxi Driver, then president Moon Jae-in declared that “The truth about the Uprising has not been fully revealed” (as quoted in Shim 457). Himself a lawyer who defended students accused of being North Korean spies in the 1980s, he was thrilled that the film would be a potent historical lesson about the uprising. Moon pledged to open a new investigation into Gwangju, but “records of the uprising have been opened to the public in a piecemeal fashion by a state concerned about the toxic revelations that may appear” (Jackson 20). Jackson argues that in this context, Hinzpeter’s footage, his strong ties to the democracy movement (he covered Minjung throughout the 1980s), and “his friendship with the Korean taxi driver Kim Sa-bok” give him credibility. “More than anything else,” Jackson writes, “Hinzpeter’s record of the moment the citizens took control of Kwangju provides evidence of the protestors’ democratic and progressive intent (35).

This film guide was developed by Julia Keblinska, The Ohio State University and is available online for classroom use worldwide.  All the film guides can be accessed at EASC's Film Guide page.