Witnessing the Chaos of the Gwangju Uprising

Professor Mark Peterson provides historical context for A Taxi Driver and the chaos that was the Gwangju Uprising.

Chaos. What began as a murmur blossoms into a shout as men and women now nervously stand their ground against an imposing line of faceless soldiers. Both sides stand motionless for a moment before the silence is shattered by the launching of gas canisters. The soldiers charge and the violence begins again in earnest as it has for the last several days.

This was an everyday reality in 1980 Gwangju. As tensions boiled over, student protestors and paratroopers squared off in the city streets, leading to the deaths of hundreds. These nine days of violence, now known as the Gwangju Uprising, are the subject of Korean director Jang Hoon’s 2017 film A Taxi Driver. This also happens to be the topic of discussion of Asian and Near Eastern Languages professor Mark Peterson’s recent lecture to BYU’s International Cinema attendees.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Set amidst the turmoil of the Gwangju Uprising, Taxi Driver chronicles the story of a simple working man forced into a conflict bigger than himself as he ferries a German reporter through the military cordon into the blood-soaked streets of the city. Peterson describes the film as having a “documentary feel” to it, but there is also a strong narrative that connects the story’s two protagonists and forces them to re-evaluate their perspectives of the world around them.

The film opens as audiences are greeted by Kim Man-seob, a taxi driver that Peterson describes as “dishonest, but with a heart of gold.” Unlike many protagonists, the titular taxi driver will “always do the wrong thing first” before returning to right those wrongs. Struggling to make ends meet, Kim Man-seob takes on the dangerous, but well-paying job to escort German reporter Jürgen Hintzpeter through the Gwangju military cordon so he can cover the protests. Both are initially driven by selfish interests, but as they find themselves pursued by government agents covering up the protests, they are offered safe haven with the people of Gwangju.

It is at these moments when the film’s message resonates at its strongest. Even in the midst of violence, as armored trucks patrol the streets and plainclothes soldiers infiltrate the protestors, Man-Seob and Hintzpeter are treated as honored guests, praised for their valor, and given all the help they need to document the uprising. During these scenes, the film truly captures the stories of people caught in the middle of revolution; it is their worried smiles and downcast eyes that display the real effects of rebellion on everyday people. The cost of insurrection weighs heavy on men and women alike, but their individual sacrifices drive the narrative and allow the world to know of Gwangju’s plight.

The film powerfully captures these moments, but it is not without its inconsistencies. As Peterson described, there is a scene in the film where soldiers open fire on unarmed civilians. While soldiers in real life did exchange fire with protestors, the fight was not one-sided— protestors raided armories and attacked soldiers until they retreated. The beatings and most of the brutality shown in the film are definitely accurate, according to Peterson, but the shooting is more of a Hollywood addition than real history.

Even bearing these inconsistencies in mind, Taxi Driver is “largely a true story” that explores the everyday people involved in the protest. At a time when the world is so widely divided, films like A Taxi Driver offer a new perspective of the sacrifices so often necessary to trigger societal change.


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in News Media with a minor in Political Science.