The Gwangju Uprising, On Screen
A number of Korean films and dramas offer a glimpse into the significant yet tragic events of May 18, 1980, and the days that followed it — a turning point in South Korea’s fight for democracy.
On the morning of May 18, 1980, a few hundred students in a city south of Seoul gathered to protest against the country’s latest dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, in a move that would mark the start of what is largely seen as a turning point in South Korea’s fight for democracy.
The Gwangju Uprising, also referred to as 5·18, began when students stood against the closure of Chonnam National University. But the government responded with its military might, with soldiers beating and clubbing students and even bystanders, in a response so cruel it only served to fuel more anger among other citizens. As more protesters joined, the violence continued to escalate, until soldiers were ordered to open fire against the civilians in what became known as one of the worst government-sponsored massacres in Korean history.
On May 27, the government, backed by US forces, deployed troops from five divisions, tanks, and helicopters to crush the uprising. But they failed to quell the impact and significance of May 18, which is now commemorated every year in South Korea. Though the uprising didn't end the military regime — that would come in 1987, after nationwide demonstrations now known as the June Democratic Struggle that were triggered by the death from torture of one of the key student leaders during the Gwangju Uprising — it did serve to fuel the opposition to the dictatorship.
The incident's shocking brutality and the bravery shown by the people of Gwangju have inspired novels, songs, and of course films and dramas — like the ones on this list — that offer a glimpse into how those historic yet traumatic days played out, as well as their impact on the people who lived through it and the nation as a whole.
A Taxi Driver (2017)
If you had to choose just one movie to watch about the Gwangju Uprising, then it should be this one. Starring no less than Song Kang-ho (Parasite), this critically acclaimed film is a unique yet masterful take on those fateful days, as told through the story of a taxi driver who agrees to drive German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter to the heart of the action in Gwangju.
Based on a true story, the film swings from funny to dramatic to agonizing, as it takes you through driver Kim Sa-bok’s changing attitudes toward the protests. It also deals with a highly significant aspect of the uprising, as Hinzpeter was the only foreign journalist able to film the brutality against civilians in Gwangju and show it to the world. In fact, a memorial honoring Hinzpeter now stands in the city. A Taxi Driver is worth watching not just for its historical value, but also to appreciate one of South Korea's best and highest-grossing films.
May 18 (2007)
South Korea’s first film to directly depict the Gwangju massacre, this drama portrays the tragic events through the lives of fictional characters inspired by real victims — taxi driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung, Memories of Murder) and his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Joon-gi, Flower of Evil). Their lives are disrupted when soldiers start violently suppressing the student-led protests.
Though criticized for historical inaccuracies, the film nevertheless displays the cruel violence of those fateful days and was an important movie at the time it came out. The incident had been a sensitive topic in Korea, as the dictatorship’s propaganda machine labeled it a communist rebellion and downplayed the casualties, and so director Kim Ji-hoon's decision to portray the brutal massacre helped to bring the reality of what happened to the general public's consciousness.
26 Years (2012)
Based on a popular manhwa, this film deals with the psychological aftermath of the tragic events on the survivors and families of those who were killed.
Set 26 years after the events of May 1980, the story centers on five individuals who feel personally victimized by the massacre — an Olympic sharpshooter, a gangster, a policeman, a businessman, and the head of a private security firm. They come together to plot revenge on the man they believe is responsible for ordering the soldiers to open fire on civilians.
Featuring stars like Jin Goo (Descendants of the Sun, Mr. Sunshine) and 2AM's Im Seul-ong, the film almost didn’t get made, as investors found it too political. But the production budget was eventually raised through a crowdfunding campaign that drew 15,000 individual donors, whose names all appeared in the film’s end credits.
This film also deals with the aftermath of the uprising, but this time from the point of view of a soldier who was among those ordered to quell the protests in Gwangju.
Kim Gang-il (Uhm Tae-woong) was a paratrooper sent to Gwangju to help suppress the pro-democracy protests. Two decades later, while working as a forklift driver, an incident forces him to look back and try to excavate an uncomfortable truth behind the tragic events. The movie shows that the massacre also left deep psychological scars on the soldiers who were ordered to kill innocent civilians.
Youth of May (2021)
A k-drama that premiered just last May 3, this show introduces us to students who were at the frontlines of the events in Gwangju at the time.
Medical student Hwang Hee-tae (Lee Do-hyun) goes home to Gwangju to help transfer a patient wounded from student protests. Hee-tae is a top student at the prestigious Seoul National University, but this failed treatment forces him to defer his graduation. In Gwangju, he meets nurse Kim Myeong-hee (Go Min-si), who is practically her family's breadwinner. She has one month left, until the end of May 1980, before she has to leave for Germany, where she will study medicine on a scholarship. Lacking airfare funds, she agrees to go on three dates with Hee-tae in place of her friend, Lee Soo-ryeon (Keum Sae-rok), who comes from a wealthy family but actively protests against the government.
With a student revolution looming, will Hee-tae and Myeong-hee's love be given a chance to bloom? Or will it be trampled on just as soldiers stomp on the demonstrators?
Have you seen any of these? Or do you have other recommendations? Let us know in the comments below!