The Korean political movie A Taxi Driver has been screening in Hong Kong theatres to good audiences. Directed by Jang Hun and starring Song Kang-ho, it fictionalises real-life events that took place in South Korea in 1980, when the country was under military dictatorship.

Countless protesters were shot in the streets by the army, in what has become known as “the Gwangju Uprising”, with at least 200 dead and thousands of wounded – and the real numbers may be much higher.

As the military government did not want news of the crackdown to spread, Gwangju had been in lockdown, with phone lines cut off, and access to the city blocked by military checkpoints. One German reporter based in Tokyo, Jurgen Hinzpeter, decided to make his way to Gwangju asking a taxi driver from Seoul (the two cities are 260 km apart) to take him there. He gave his name as Kim So-bong – probably a fake one.

YouTube video

Once there, through incredible risks to himself and the driver, Hinzpeter managed to film damning and horrifying footage of what was taking place in Gwangju, exposing the government’s lies. Nearly 40 years later, now that South Korea is a vibrant democracy, not only is it possible to make a movie about those events, but also to bring to light little known heroes like the taxi driver.

“A Taxi Driver” is a strange production, and comes only close to being good: Jang has decided to make it part comedy and part sentimental, with stereotyped characters. It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t kill what remains a worthwhile movie: the historical reconstruction is excellent, and the events depicted carry the 2.17 hours screening time in spite of the soppiness and slapstick comic relief.

When the demonstrators defy the soldiers by walking on as they get shot, or unarmed civilians try to duck the bullets to bring the wounded to safety, the film is extraordinary and brave.

To watch it in Hong Kong has a special feeling, too: so many of those scenes bring to mind a similar, if probably deadlier, massacre that took place just nine years after the Gwangju Uprising, in Beijing. Then, too, taxi-drivers played an important role, seldom remembered.

The Tiananmen Protests started with the death of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, on April 15th, and went on, week after week, occupying the central square in front of the Forbidden City and through frequent mass demonstrations. The government expressed its condemnation in virulent editorials, but days of inaction swelled the numbers of protesters and led to the widespread opinion that the government was split.

Everyone joined in, including journalists from all the state newspapers: their slogan at the marches read “No More Lies”, to everybody’s applause. For a few heady days, the mainland Chinese press was nearly free.

Soldiers could be seen sitting idly in their trucks, uncertain of their own role, while the Beijing citizenry was taking turns in talking to them and feeding them, explaining that the protesters were “our students” and that they were peaceful.

On May 20th, though, martial law was declared in Beijing. Troops started to mass on the outskirts of the city and at some of the main junctions, but again, the situation was peaceful.

tiananmen museum
June 4 Museum. Photo: Stand News.

I was a student at Beijing Normal University at the time, and I remember that students would come round to the dormitories asking for copies of the pre-martial law newspapers to bring to the soldiers, to show them that what they had been told was untrue: there were no counterrevolutionary riots in Beijing, but peaceful demonstrations.

Long before mobile phones, all communication had to be done in person, and Beijing taxi drivers, together with motorbike drivers, styled themselves as “The Flying Tigers”: they would make the rounds of the city as far as they could and report about troops movements to the demonstrators.

It was through one of the “Flying Tigers” alerts that people knew, late on June 3d, that something had abruptly changed, and that the soldiers, a new batch just brought in, were not going to accept home cooked food and old newspapers. The armed crackdown had begun – even if it took a while for people to accept that the People’s Army could shoot the people.

We don’t know if there were any taxi drivers among the victims (Ding Zilin, the founder of the Mothers of Tiananmen, has listed about ten drivers among the dead, but they do not seem to have been part of the Flying Tigers team), but hopefully one day their heroic patrolling and information-relaying role will be better known. Maybe a film will be made about them, even better than “A Taxi Driver”.

Hong Kong taxi drivers have often appeared on local films as natural characters – their services are relatively cheap and ubiquitous, their occasional temper tantrums and malpractices notorious.

The most recent notable example of taxi drivers’ cinematic glory has to be the segment Dialect in the dystopian film Ten Years, where a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver endures the humiliation of his mother tongue becoming a useless liability in his hometown.

Hong Kong taxis
Hong Kong taxis. Photo: Wikicommons.

Even in future, though, Hong Kong taxi drivers won’t become the pro-democracy heroes of a movie on, say, the Umbrella Movement. Of course the Hong Kong protests, in spite of many tense moments and a degree of anti-demonstrators violence, thankfully did not end in a bloody crackdown. Instead, they ended when a taxi-drivers group obtained a court injunction to clear the protests sites of demonstrators.

The Hong Kong government had refused to entertain meaningful dialogue with the demonstrators, and allowed a political problem to be addressed as if it were a public order one. Not the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong history, but a traffic nuisance.

Once again, it is the rot of the Functional Constituencies at work: taxis, like others in the transport industry, are part of a pro-establishment lobby with a guaranteed seat in LegCo through the Transport Functional Constituency. Small wonder that pro-democracy demonstrators don’t elicit their sympathies, and that they are willing to help the government get out of a sticky situation through court injunctions, instead of democratic dialogue.

Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.