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Fantasia 2017: Before you see A Taxi Driver, here is some background info about the Gwangju Massacre

Thomas Kretschmann, left, and Song Kang-ho in South Korean film A Taxi Driver.

A Taxi Driver is the closing film of the 2017 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival. It’s a dramatization of real life events from South Korea’s tumultuous history.

In May of 1980, Jurgen Hinzpeter, a German reporter, stationed in Tokyo, hears rumours about  government violence against citizens in Gwangju South Korea. News is not getting out because phone lines had been cut and roads into and out of the city were blocked. The country is under martial law; many schools are closed and news reports are censored.

Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) flies to Seoul and hires a taxi driver named Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) to drive the 300 km to Gwangju. (In those days, the city’s named was rendered as Kwangju in English.) With advice form local farmers, the two men manage to bypass the barricades and enter the city using tiny back roads.

Once in the city they see a real spirit of solidarity among the citizens, who are hungry for democracy and an end to military rule. Then they see soldiers shooting protestors, young and old, along with people who try to help the wounded. They capture these events on film while trying to avoid arrest, injuries or their own deaths.

The film’s only screening, today, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, is sold out, but if you are among the lucky people who have a ticket, here are some links to recent articles and ones written at the time, that will give you some background information to the events depicted in the film.

An article in today’s New York Times says: “With the Korean news media muzzled by martial law, only the handful of foreign correspondents present could publish reports on what was happening in Gwangju. . .Mr. Hinzpeter was one of the few foreign correspondents to document the carnage, and his footage was seen around the globe.”

“Mr. Hinzpeter, who died last year at 78, has long been celebrated in South Korea for his part in exposing Mr. Chun’s atrocities. A memorial to the journalist stands in Gwangju. . . Behind a hospital, ‘relatives and friends showed me their loved ones, opening many of the coffins that had been placed in rows,’ Mr. Hinzpeter wrote. ‘Never in my life, even filming in Vietnam, had I seen anything like this.’ “

A New York Times article from May 20, 1980 bears the headline “New Repression in South Korea.”

Gwangju is about 300 km from Seoul. These days, one can drive there in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

This article from The Hankyoreh calls the massacre Korea’s Tiananmen, referring to the 1989 massacre of students in Beijing, China. Lee Gang-jun lost his twin brother Lee Gang-su. “When he asked a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of death in 1997, just before the body was moved from a cemetery in Gwangju’s Mangwol neighborhood to the May 18th National Cemetery, it was because he wanted the truth to come out. ‘My brother’s skull was caved in, and even the specialists couldn’t figure out what the marks were caused by,’ (Lee) said. Gang-jun believes that his brother died during torture at the Sangmudae military base. After his death, soldiers shot him to create the impression that he died from a bullet would instead of complications suffered during torture.”

This article from ThoughtCo. says “Troops shot dead twenty girls at Gwangju’s Central High School. Ambulance and cab drivers who tried to take the wounded to hospitals were shot. One hundred students who sheltered in the Catholic Center were slaughtered. Captured high school and university students had their hands tied behind them with barbed wire; many were then summarily executed.”

An article in The Korea Observer includes quotes from Na Byung-un, who was there in Gwangju. “In those days, South Korea’s GDP per capita was just under $4,000 per person, or less than one-sixth than that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As a country with few natural resources recovered from Japanese colonization, it struggled to find its footing politically, economically, and socially. This was especially true in Gwangju, a city nestled in the one of the poorest regions of South Korea, agricultural South Jeolla Province. ‘People were very, very poor, and they led miserable lives.’ Na recalls. ‘They didn’t even have one dollar.’ “

“According to Na, there was a rumor that those who criticized the government would be kidnapped and murdered in secret. . . .Na recounts, “People had been uprising and protesting against dictatorship continuously under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They put innocent people into prison and oppressed the masses by force of arms. So people all rose up. . . All Gwangju citizens were involved in the protests, because all of us were together as one. Everyone thought we had to stand against injustice,’ says Na. ‘Even the police were on our side. They changed into normal clothes at night and joined us.’ “

Tim Shorrock of The Nation has reported extensively on Korea. In this article he says that the Korean troops who injured and killed civilians were “sent with the approval of the U.S. commander of the US-Korea Joint Command, Gen. John Wickham.”

“That decision, made at the highest levels of the US government, forever stained the relationship between the United States and the South. For the people of Gwangju, many of whom believed that the US military would side with the forces of democracy, it was a deep betrayal that they’ve never forgotten. And once the rest of Korea knew the truth about the rebellion and understood that the United States had helped throttle it, anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire.”

(U.S. president Jimmy) “Carter decided that the Gwangju uprising—despite the US knowledge that it had been sparked by the slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters—had to be crushed militarily. Five days after the meeting, South Korea’s crack 9th Army Division rolled into the city and killed the remaining rebels holed up in the provincial capital building.”

Shorrock’s article contains links to many, many others.

A Taxi Driver is distributed by Well Go USA. Perhaps it will return to Montreal for a general run in the future.

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