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This section introduces conceptual questions that instructors can familiarize themselves with before they teach the film. They can be adapted for class discussion after the screening. I suggest pairing general questions with specific moments in the film that allow students to discuss the question. In section 4, I offer examples of such exercises.
History, Memory, Memorialization
Like many historical films based on a true story, A Taxi Driver begins with text on a black screen that reads, in Korean: “This film is based on true events.” Upon seeing the film, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president from 2017-2022, proclaimed:
“The truth about the Uprising has not been fully revealed. This is the task we have to resolve. I believe this movie will help resolve it. I also felt that the Gwangju Democratisation Movement was always trapped in Gwangju, but now it seems to spread to the people. I think this is the great strength of the movie” (quoted and translated in Shim 457).
The film and its reception thus underscore authenticity. As international relations scholar David Shim points out, the film “not only (apolitically) entertains people, but also (politically) educates them about certain issues and events” (457). While the Gwangju Uprising is presented accurately in the film, we know that Hinzpeter’s role is somewhat mythologized. The peril the characters face and Hinzpeter’s status as apparently the only foreigner in Gwangju are not accurate. Neither is it the case that the city was completely inaccessible. In fact, Hinzpeter traveled there and back twice during the uprising. What sort of memory work is the film doing by presenting the Gwangju Uprising through the lens of his “true story”?
- How is this film a historical lesson? What sort of political message is communicated here and how? For example, many South Koreans view the United States as complicit in the massacre, but the film doesn’t espouse strongly anti-American politics; in fact, the United States is not mentioned at all. Another version of the Gwangju story could have tapped into South Korean anti-Americanism, especially since it was an important element of democracy protests. In one of the lead actor Song Kang-ho’s earlier films, The Host, characters throw Molotov cocktails (weapons used by democracy protestors) to kill a Godzilla-like beast created through the negligence of an American military doctor in South Korea.
- How does the film make claims to historic authenticity? Both the opening title cards and the film’s end, which includes archival footage of the real Hinzpeter, frame the narrative as a true story. Additionally, the film has a very careful design, including many details specific to the 1980s in the mise en scène. I suspect, in fact, that the choice to make Kim Man-seob a private taxi driver with an iconic green car rather than accurately have him drive a black hotel-owned taxi is motivated by a desire to create a stronger 1980s atmosphere. Posters of sexually suggestive films visible outside a movie theater in an early scene are also a careful touch. Such movies were popular in the 1980s and have in retrospect been described by scholars as products of cultural policy that used eroticism to keep people entertained and distracted from politics.
- How is Hinzpeter presented in the film? Note that Hinzpeter is from West Germany, a nation that like Korea, was divided by the Cold War. How does Hinzpeter’s presentation differ from Kim’s? The real Kim was fully aware of the political situation, interested in democratic protests, and did not drive Hinzpeter because of the promised high fare. He was also fluent in English. How does the film’s narrative produce heroic characters? Who is the hero and how do they become one? In other words, why is it significant that the film’s taxi driver is initially apolitical and struggles to communicate with the Western journalist.
- Gwangju has been memorialized in many ways. As mentioned above, there are multiple narrative films about the uprising, there are documentaries, plays, physical memorials, museums, eyewitness accounts, etc. Records of what happened in Gwangju have been recognized by UNESCO as “world documentary heritage.” While it is beyond the scope of this module to compare all of the ways that Gwangju memories are mediated, we can consider more abstractly how historical films in general interact with memorialization practices. What sorts of narratives about protest and democracy are crafted in historical films? How is a film different from other forms of memorialization?
- The film was potent enough in its evocation of 1980s democracy struggles that it was banned in China, where people who watched it began comparing it to Tiananmen. Gwangju is sometimes referred to as “Korea’s Tiananmen,” when in reality, that monumental protest happened nine years later, in June of 1989. A Taxi Driver feels at once specific and also quite universal. What is shared in the visual vocabulary of films about political protest (or their coverage in the news)?
News and Film Footage
The film is of course about the news. Hinzpeter is a reporter who wants to get footage of Gwangju and share the city’s story with the world. Many of the film’s dramatic moments involve his camera, first getting it into Gwangju and then getting the footage out. Unlike the South Korean press whose reporting is controlled by the government authorities, Hinzpeter can communicate the truth of Gwangju to the world. In addition to the foreign news camera, the film also considers how domestic newspapers covered the story.
- A Taxi Driver is a meta-reflection on filming, meaning that it’s a film about film. How does the film engage with the camera? At what moments is the device important? When do we see it on screen? What does Hinzpeter film and how?
- Near the end of the film, we see a foreign newsroom. Reporters sit in front of six televisions all playing the same newscast featuring Hinzpeter’s footage. What is going on here? What might the excessive number of televisions mean in this sequence? How is Hinzpeter’s significance to Gwangju communicated when we see his footage on a television screen? Why not cut footage directly into the movie?
- Why is it significant that Hinzpeter is shooting footage on a camera? Why not make a film about any of the other reporters, like for example, Terry Anderson, an American reporter who was shot at by both the Gwangju Citizen Army (armed protestors who were fighting off government forces) when he was mistaken for a soldier and by the actual army when he tried to photograph paratroopers firing on protestors (Jackson 26).
- How is the South Korean news media represented? One South Korean reporter in the film interact with Hinzpeter a little bit after he arrives in Gwangju. In a later scene, we see a newspaper print shop that is about to print broadsheets with real news about Gwangju, but the renegade newsmen are stopped. When Kim Man-seob encounters fake news as he is leaving Gwangju to go back to Seoul, he decides to go back and help Hinzpeter get out of the city.
David Shim sees the film’s inside/outside configuration to be a significant aspect of how A Taxi Driver represents the events in Gwangju. There are multiple insider/outsider pairs in the movie.
- Kim Man-seob is not initially interested in democracy protests. Instead, he grumbles about the students and describes them as “spoiled brats” who should be “shipped off to Saudi Arabia.” The reference is not random. Kim’s backstory includes a stint working in Saudi Arabia, where South Korean workers completed government contracts. Kim’s resentment of “spoiled” students suggests that he was a laborer. He therefore doesn’t initially identify with protestors who don’t seem to share his class background.
- Why is this characterization of Kim very canny? Consider how it allows viewers who might likewise be ignorant of or unconcerned about South Korean politics to learn about the Gwangju Uprising and become emotionally invested gradually.
- Hinzpeter is a foreigner, so he is an outsider to South Korea, but he is immediately accepted into the fold of student protestors in Gwangju, making him an insider. Why is this dual identity significant?
- Shim points out that while protestors in the film are regularly shown with the South Korean national flag, soldiers are not clearly identified with national iconography. The protestors are thus the patriotic South Koreans while the South Korean army is a faceless mass of killers. Since these soldiers are so anonymous, “the film does not tell a story of Koreans shooting at Koreans –something that would have tainted the narrative of building a ‘new’ Korea –but of soldiers shooting at protestors” (463). What narrative is Shim referencing? What story about South Korean identity does the film tell?
- Finally, the film does portray one soldier in greater depth. When the two men are fleeing Gwangju with footage, they are stopped at a checkpoint. An officer looks through their trunk and finds the film, but instead of confiscating it, he lets them through. Why? What kind of outside/inside status does this moment indicate?
The Melodrama of Protest
Melodrama is a genre that is often maligned as being overly dramatic, its excesses a little embarrassing and its conventions apparently outdated. Writing in defense of the genre’s contemporary importance, film scholar defines melodrama as the “novels, stories, stage plays, movies, songs, and media events that move us to sympathy for the sufferings of the virtuous” (12). It is, in her words, a “evolving mode of storytelling crucial to the establishment of moral good” (12). Some of the inaccuracies in A Taxi Driver, including the chase scene in which Hinzpeter and Kim escape Gwangju thanks to the sacrifice of local cabbies, are narrative choices that increase the audience’s emotional investment in the story. Characters are often incredibly moved by the melodrama of their own situations.
- Melodramas have clear heroes and villains; the moral stakes are not ambiguous. Watching a melodrama is therefore not primarily about figuring out if something is good or bad, but rather it is about having feelings about the goodness and badness on screen. Before we get into the film itself, however, pause to consider how melodramatic framings are used during political protest more broadly.
- Which moments in the film are melodramatic? How is melodrama heightened with cinematic devices (music, lighting, acting, etc.)? How do they contribute to the film’s work as a “historical lesson”? We know, for example, that many students and other protestors died in Gwangju, but that Kim and Hinzpeter survived, so the stakes for them are not so high. What is the narrative function of characters who die?
- Identify scenes of emotional turmoil—what is going on? Who is emotional and why? How do emotional breakthroughs that make Kim Man-seob sympathetic to the protestors push forward the narrative? If, as argued above, Kim is both the representation of a historical figure and a surrogate for the audience, why is it important for him to keep vacillating and eventually make the right conclusion?
- How does mothers’ grief, one of the examples of female emotionality in the film, compare with the men’s emotional breakdowns?
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.