Opening on August 11th at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the same day nationally, “A Taxi Driver” is a South Korean film based on an important event in the country’s history. In 1980, during a rebellion in Gwangju against a recent military coup, a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter came to South Korea to cover the rebellion but had no way to reach the city except by cab since all public transportation had been shut down by the military. Even a cab would have trouble getting through since all the major roads had been blockaded. It was up to a cab driver named Kim Sa-bok to drive the reporter into Gwangju, taking dirt roads to bypass the military guards. As a result of Hinzpeter’s film footage of the occupying military’s massacre of up to 600 people, the South Korean government was perceived worldwide as a bloody dictatorship.
This is not the first South Korean film to dramatize the Gwangju uprising. In 1999 I reviewed “Peppermint Candy”, a film I included in my list of the greatest 100 ever made. Yongho, The anti-hero of “Peppermint Candy”, is a businessman who has had a long history of malevolent behavior, including serving as part of the assault on Gwangju. From my review:
Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.
The soldiers are dispatched to Gwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.
“A Taxi Driver” is not quite the film that “Peppermint Candy” is but one that I urge CounterPunch readers to see in light of its key importance to South Korean history and as a way of understanding the current crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons.
The film makes no effort to portray the real Kim Sa-bok since there is virtually nothing known about him except his role in history. After dropping off Hinzpeter at the airport, he disappeared from sight and did not respond to public efforts by the reporter to make contact with him. (In the film, Hinzpeter is called Peter and the cabdriver is Kim Man-seob.)
Since director Jang Hoon felt at liberty to create what amounted to a fictional character, his Kim has a backstory that is fairly typical of the sentimentality that appeals to popular audiences in South Korea. He is a single father working in Seoul with an eleven year old daughter and in desperate financial circumstances. Overhearing that Peter will pay a cabbie 100,000 won to be driven to Gwangju and back, he beats a rival cab company to the punch and shows up at the reporter’s hotel representing himself as the hired driver.
Kim Man-seob is played by Song Kang-ho, a veteran of South Korean film who usually plays good-natured but bumbling characters—in other words, a character like the cab driver of this film who has no idea that Gwangju is a place where he could easily lose his life. Song Kang-ho’s best-known role was in “The Host”, where he played a dimwitted young man who runs a snack-bar near a river so polluted that it has created a Godzilla-type creature that he and his cohorts hunt down. (It is great.)
Eom Yu-na’s script for “A Taxi Driver” starts out as a light-hearted comedy with Song Kang-ho going through his comic paces, a South Korean version of Jackie Chan. But not long after entering the city, things take a dark turn as he is shocked to see young people being gunned down in the street. Learning that he too might end up being gunned down by an out-of-control military, he begins to make plans to beat a hasty retreat to Seoul leaving Peter behind. The core of the film is his conflicted relationship with the reporter that eventually is resolved by choosing to stand with the protestors. Since we have no information on the taxi-driver of history, we might assume that he had only had pecuniary motives not that different from the film character before he became “woke”.
“A Taxi Driver” joins “Peppermint Candy” and other South Korean films that break with the authoritarian past that drove students and other people to rise up in Gwangju in 1980. Director Jang Hoon has made two other films that are most timely given the crisis fueled by Donald Trump’s threats against the North. His 2012 “The Front Line” is about South and North Korean soldiers fraternizing during the waning days of the Korean War while his 2014 “Secret Reunion” is about spies from the South and the North who bond together against criminals involved with sex trafficking.
What “A Taxi Driver” only hints at is the revolutionary dynamic of the Gwanju rebellion that is far beyond the capability of any South Korean director, including the most liberal such as Jang Hoon and Lee Chang-dong, the director of “Peppermint Candy”, to bring to the screen. We see, for example, Kim Man-seob’s astonishment at local service stations giving away gasoline for free. We also see his cab driver brothers from Gwangju protecting the rebellious students as one of their own. This does not begin to approximate what Tim Shorrock described in a Nation Magazine article titled “The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea”:
Virtually the entire city joined in, creating a self-governing community that many Koreans now compare to the Paris Commune of 1871. Women shared food and water with the fighters. Taxi and bus drivers shuttled rebels around the town and, on several occasions, used their vehicles as weapons against marauding soldiers. Nurses and doctors tended to the wounded. Citizens, young and old, flocked to local hospitals to donate blood.
Of equal importance, Shorrock reveals how President Carter—the must beloved liberal icon—was deeply implicated in the military coup in 1979 that provoked the uprising:
In 1996, I wrote a series of articles for the Journal of Commerce and South Korea’s Sisa Journal that, for the first time, exposed how deeply the Carter administration was involved in the planning for the military coup of 1980. Based on a huge cache of declassified documents from the State Department and the Pentagon obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, my stories showed that the Carter administration had essentially given the green light to South Korea’s generals to use military force against the huge student and worker demonstrations that rocked the country in the spring of 1980 (years later, I also obtained several hundred CIA documents, showing how badly the agency had underestimated Korean opposition to the dictatorship).
The coup occurred in the aftermath of the assassination of Park Chung-hee, who had ruled South Korea from December 17, 1963 until his death in on October 26, 1979 at the hands of the head of the Korean CIA. It was analogous to Mike Pompeo killing Donald Trump in a fourth term—god forbid.
Park Chung-hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye and the most recent president of South Korea was removed from power but in a gentler way. On March 31, 2017, she was put under arrest and charged the following month with abuse of power, bribery, coercion, and leaking government secrets. The senior and junior Park were symbols of the class exploitation in one of the Asian Tigers that relied on an incestuous relationship between chaebols, cops and the military. It is the system that was attacked in “Peppermint Candy” and only slightly challenged by liberal governments that have short shelf-lives because of their failure to attack the roots of South Korean capitalism.
While North Korea has the reputation of being a demonic and dangerous nuclear weapons developer, it was actually the South under Park Chung-hee that took the first step in creating the ultimate WMD. The Nautilus Institute, a liberal think-tank devoted to analyzing security issues in East Asia, released a report titled “Park Chung Hee, the CIA, and the Bomb” in 2011 that demonstrated the South’s willingness to develop weapons that would likely be used against the North:
According to the report, in late 1974, Park Chung Hee authorized a program to develop nuclear weapons technology with a view to developing a long-term nuclear option, but, in January 1976, to avoid friction in its alliance with the United States, he ended negotiations with France to obtain reprocessing technology, and in December 1976, under immense US pressure, he suspended the whole nuclear weapons program (this much was well known at the time and has been documented by many scholars). What is less well known is that this proliferation activity continued after 1976, partly in response to the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons along with the 2nd Infantry Division. The CIA documents, combined with Hong’s review of the embassy cable traffic, largely fill the gap in our understanding of this period.
It was not until 1980 that North Korea began to take steps to develop nuclear weapons. Is it possible that South Korea’s continuing and surreptitious efforts made it necessary for the North to defend itself? Is it also possible that South Korea is continuing its nuclear arms development? Given the deposed President’s willingness to flout laws so brazenly, it cannot be ruled out.
Korea is a glaring example of failed socialist opportunities. Given the Paris Commune-like uprising in Gwangju, it should be obvious that the South is not a nation of “deplorables”. Like the USA, the rightwing parties get elected only after a liberal presidency fails to deliver on its promises.
Meanwhile, the North is ruled by a family dynasty just like Syria that many on the left hail for its “socialist” economy. Considering the emphasis that Marx and Engels put on the full development of the working class after the abolition of capitalism, it is regrettable that a dictatorship having more in common with Confucianism than Marxism, as Bruce Cumings has argued, could have never intervened in the South with an emancipatory politics that might have proven decisive.
While it is understandable why North Korea chose to develop nuclear weapons, the most urgent task for its defense is an end to the family dynasty and its replacement by a true socialist government that rejects the cultishness of the present system. Following in the footsteps of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, the worship of the Dear Leader could not be more distant from the early Bolshevik state that found such displays antithetical to socialism.
After Lenin was shot by an anarchist in 1918, he was dismayed by the praise dolloped out in the party press. He complained, “They exaggerate everything, call me a genius, some kind of special person. All our lives we have waged an ideological struggle against the glorification of the personality, of the individual.” On his 50th birthday, his comrades organized a big bash for him replete with fawning speeches of the sort you might hear at a Lion’s Club. He told his hosts that he would only enter the celebration after all the speeches were done, saying that he thanked “the assembly for their greetings and for having spared him from having to listen to them”.
Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya said that he should not be honored by embalming, monuments, celebrations, etc., all of which had meant nothing to him, but by building day-care centers, kindergartens, homes and schools. She never visiting the mausoleum that Stalin created for him while the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky denounced the “rituals, mausoleums and processions” and the trafficking in Lenin kitsch. Think of that the next time you see Kim Jong-un being worshipped by his cult followers or for that matter when Putin’s supporters in the West make a stink about Lenin statues being smashed in Ukraine. If Lenin had lived to see this happening, it is likely that he would be first in line with a sledge-hammer.