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A Taxi Driver
(dir. Jang Hoon) is based loosely on the true story of a taxi driver who drove the West German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, to the southern city of Gwangju in May of 1980. Unbeknownst to Kim Man-seob, the character based on the real-life taxi driver, Gwangju was in the midst of a popular uprising against the authoritarian leader who had just replaced the country’s previous autocrat in a military coup. In the film, a broke Kim snags Hinzpeter’s fare from another driver after overhearing he can make 100,000 won (around $400 in 2023 dollars adjusted for inflation). When the two men approach Gwangju, they find the highway has been blocked and access to the city cut off. Increasingly suspicious, Kim drives on country roads to find an alternative path into the city, eventually talking his way through a checkpoint. Once the taxi arrives in Gwangju, the city appears empty, with signs of fighting on the streets. They encounter a truck full of student protestors; Hinzpeter goes with the young men and Kim is supposed to follow, but he sneaks off in another direction, hoping to leave what he realizes is a very dangerous situation. He does not, however, make it out of Gwangju, because he stops to pick up an old woman desperately looking for her son and takes her to the hospital. There, he meets Hinzpeter again, and the two argue about the cab ride: Kim wants to leave but needs the money. Eventually, a group of students and local cab drivers argue that Hinzpeter can only pay him if he stays, and so the two men begin their trip through Gwangju. Hinzpeter records various scenes, including the brutal suppression of the protest by government forces. A special security forces officer realizes that there is a foreigner in the city and begins a quest to hunt him down. Kim, increasingly sympathetic to the protestors, but still reluctant to stay in Gwangju, is especially worried because he left his young daughter home alone in Seoul and has now been gone overnight. He leaves Gwangju in the morning but changes his mind and returns to the city after seeing the government’s false news reports about the uprising while eating lunch in a nearby town. Upon returning to Gwangju, he reunites with Hinzpeter, and with other cab drivers, attempts to save civilian lives when soldiers start shooting unarmed civilians. The two men eventually escape Gwangju with the footage and Hinzpeter evades security forces hoping to catch him in Seoul before he boards a plane to Japan. Although Hinzpeter asks Kim for his name so they can meet again, Kim gives him a false name, Kim Sa-bok, and Hinzpeter is not able to find him when he returns to Seoul a short while later. In an epilogue, Hinzpeter returns to a now democratic Korea to receive a prize for his reportage. He thanks Kim Sa-bok, whom he has never been able to locate. Meanwhile, Kim Man-seob, still a cabbie, reads about Hinzpeter’s award and mention of a taxi driver in a newspaper.

A Taxi Driver was one of South Korea’s highest grossing films in 2017 and is one of several recent films about the country’s democracy movement of the 1980s that have done exceptionally well at the box office. The film’s great popularity fueled interest in the identity of Kim Sa-bok, the real-life driver who assisted Hinzpeter. The man’s son has since come forward, explaining that his father died of liver cancer in 1984. Kim’s ashes were interred at the May 18th National Cemetery, a national memorial to the victims of the uprising who had initially been buried unceremoniously in Mangweol-dong Cemetery by government authorities intent on silencing any further dissent. Together with these events, the film contributes to the heroic myth of Hinzpeter’s trip to Gwangju. While the reporter did travel there, he was neither the only foreign reporter in Gwangju nor the first one to break the news, but he is the culturally revered of the foreign correspondents in the city. His footage, however, was especially powerful and reached South Korean viewers who could tune into US military television signals and watch foreign news or see his footage on VHS tapes circulated by democracy activists.

This module will explore how Hinzpeter’s recording of “what really happened” is intertwined with the film’s own production of a heroic historical narrative about Gwangju. We will also consider how the narrative works to engage viewers on the “outside” of Gwangju by bringing them into the city and into Korean history. Section 2 provides a brief history of South Korea that contextualizes the 1980s in terms of Korean film history, Cold War politics, and contemporary memory culture, including recent films and television programs about the decade. Sections 3 and 4 are dedicated to the film itself, offering examples of analysis and class activities that can help students engage productively with the film. A final section includes sources used in the production of this module and a list of online resources that may be useful in teaching.

Main Characters:

  • Kim Man-seob (played by Song Kang-ho), the taxi driver
  • Jürgen Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann), the West German reporter
  • Gu Jae-sik (played by Ryu Jun-yeol), a student protestor in Gwangju who helps the two men navigate the city
  • Hwang Tae-sool (played by Yoo Hae-jin), a local Gwangju taxi driver who also assists the visitors

Accessibility: A Taxi Driver is available for free (with advertisements) on many streaming sites. It is available on Blu-ray on Amazon. It can also be rented or purchased in standard and high-definition versions. Links and prices for several streaming options are listed below:

  • Amazon (free with ads, or $2.99/3.99 to rent and $7.99 to buy)
  • YouTube (free with ads)
  • Viki (free with ads, or subscription)

Note on rating: A Taxi Driver is not rated by MPAA. The film includes scenes of political violence (beatings and shooting of civilians by armed forces). At one point, a character is held at gunpoint, execution style, but he is not killed on screen. Amazon rates it at 16+. Viki, a popular streaming site for Asian content rates it PG-13.

Note on Korean: in Korean, family names go first while given names go last. For example, Song Kang-ho plays the leading role in the film. His family name is Song and his given name is Kang-ho. In South Korea, the government standard is Revised Romanization, but proper names are not always rendered by this system. Most Anglophone scholarship uses McCune-Reischauer, which relies on diacritical marks. When referring to historical figures, I will be using the spelling that is most well-known. This video introduces the sound of the Korean alphabet.

Note on scope: this module is focused on South Korea. North Korea appears primarily as the “other,” i.e., the communist enemy. A second module would need to be produced to rigorously account for North Korea as historical locale in its own right.

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.