Oscars: South Korea's Brutal Pro-Democracy Movement Revealed Through 'A Taxi Driver'

A Taxi Driver Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Jang? Hoon's intimate drama uses the true story of South ?Korea's infamous Gwangju ?Uprising to examine how the decisions of ordinary people can help spark a revolution.

The fourth feature from director Jang Hoon, A Taxi Driver tells the story of the Gwangju Uprising, a watershed event in the evolution of South Korean democracy.

It was 1980, and South Koreans had lived under the authoritarian rule of president Park Chung-hee for 16 years until his assassination in 1979. A pro-democracy movement was gaining momentum, but hard-liner Army Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, who had just seized control of the government in a coup, declared martial law and suppressed protests around the country — as well as the press' reporting on them. Residents of the southwestern city Gwangju refused to back down, and on May 18, soldiers savagely attacked a group of protestors there, beginning a brutal nine-day siege in which the military beat, shot and used bayonets and tear gas on its country's own citizens.

Instead of taking a bird's-eye view of this historical event, Jang's film — South Korea's submission in the Oscar race — focuses on the true story of a taxi driver named Kim Sa-bok (Song Kang-ho), who bravely drove German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) into Gwangju even after the military closed the city off to all outside traffic and communication.

The footage that Hinzpeter shot and smuggled out of the country revealed to the world — and to the rest of South Korea — that the government had murdered its own people and tried to cover it up in an effort to prevent democracy from taking hold.

For Jang, telling this story was a tremendous responsibility. "We had a great sense of duty, all of us — me, my staff and my actors," he says. "We wanted to show the truth about this incident."

To that end, Jang did extensive interviews with Gwangju residents who lived through the uprising.

"On top of the written records we have, we wanted to hear from the people who actually went through it, how they felt. We wanted to probe their feelings," he says.

One of the film's most striking scenes, in which Kim sees soldiers beating a truck full of naked civilians, came directly from one of the interviewees.

"Before interviewing this person and hearing that story, that scene was not in the film," says Jang. "But this person told me that was one of the most horrific and shocking things that he witnessed during Gwangju. He saw this pink flesh, and at first he didn't realize they were people. He thought they were pigs. But up close he realized these were naked people stashed like animals … completely naked and vulnerable, as if they were nothing."

Only recently has the South Korean government been willing to investigate what really happened in Gwangju. In May, newly elected president Moon Jae-in pledged to revisit the subject of the massacre, and in September, the country's defense ministry announced it would begin a special investigation.

Meanwhile, A Taxi Driver is inspiring a public dialogue about the incident and what it means to the history of South Korea.

Says Jang: "Without historical knowledge, you can't really have reference points to your current events or what's happening around you, so as a result, these younger generations who didn't know about the Gwangju events, now after watching my movie they realized what happened and what kind of sacrifices the older generations made."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.