In 1980, South Korean president Chun Do-hwan’s military rule led to a confrontation in a city of Gwangju, the southern region of South Korea. The confrontation would later be known as the Gwangju Uprising, May 18 Gwangju Democratisation Movement or May 18 Democratic Uprising by UNESCO.
From May 18 to 27, 1980, Gwangju residents took up arms by robbing local armories and police stations.
The uprising started when local Chonnam University students started to demonstrate against the government’s martial law.
About 200 students gathered at the the gate of the university and were opposed by 30 paratroopers on the morning of May 18.
By evening, the government dispatched 686 soldiers to the scene as the conflict broadened to more than 2,000 protesters.
Witnesses reported the soldiers attacked both protesters and onlookers.
As the conflict escalated, the army started to fire on civilians, killing an unaccounted number on May 20.
The protesters then began to seize weapons from police stations and armories, then attacking the army.
By May 21, the soldiers left and citizens took over the city. On May 26, the army returned to retake the city. After less than two hours of operations, the army arrested 1,740 rioters.
Like many riots or protests around the world, there is no universally accepted number of the death toll during the Gwangju Uprising.
The official figures stand at 144 civilians, 22 troops and four policeman killed. However based on foreign press, the actual death toll could be up to 2,000.
After South Korean President Moon Jae-in took over office in May 2017, he vowed to investigate the government’s role during the Gwangju Uprising.
Later it was revealed for the first time that the army had used a helicopter to fire on civilians.
A formal investigation by the government confirmed there were 17 cases of sexual assault, including against teenagers and a pregnant woman.
The Gwangju Uprising definitely left a dark mark in South Korean history. According to Korea Resource Center, it ignited the floundering pro-democracy movement in Korea culminating in 1987 when the People’s Power movement finally broke the power of the South Korean military.
With a number of references and portrayal in popular culture, South Korea’s younger generation will not forget this piece of their history.
So here are KajoMag’s picks of five movies to watch inspired by the Gwangju Uprising:
1.26 Years (2012)
This movie is a fictional story circling around five ordinary people from different backgrounds who come together to kill the person behind the massacre during Gwangju Uprising.
26 years after the massacre in 2006, a sports shooter, a gangster, a policeman, a businessman and head of private security firm plot revenge against the man responsible.
Former president Chun Doo-hwan is believed to given the order to fire on civilians but he is not explicitly named in the movie.
However, the target clearly is referring to Chun.
The main three characters are Kwak Jin-bae (Jin Goo), a gangster who lost his father during the uprising, Shim Mi-jin (Han Hye-jin) a national team shooter and policeman Kwon Jung-kyuk (Im Seul-ong) who lost his family.
2.Peppermint Candy (1999)
After watching this movie, you will never forget the iconic opening scene when the main character Yong-ho faces an oncoming train, screaming “I want to go back again!”
As the movie starts with the suicide of Yong-ho, the story unfolds through flashbacks some of the important events over the past 20 years leading to his death.
Every event in his life coincides with some of the major incidents in South Korean history, including the Gwangju Uprising.
During his flashback to the uprising, Yong-ho is seen performing his mandatory military service. This is when he accidentally shoots and kills a student protester.
It also shows how he becomes traumatised by the shooting incident and later becomes a more brutal and cynical policeman.
Likewise, Yong-ho ends up losing his job in the 1990s, mirroring the real-life impact of the Asian financial crisis.
The movie explores different themes, including how it killed the innocence of those who pulled the triggers during the uprising.
3.Fork Lane (2017)
Similar to Peppermint Candy, Fork Lane (2017) follows the story of a soldier trying to cope with his life after Gwangju Uprising.
It tells the story of Kim Gang-il (Uhm Tae-woong), a paratrooper who was sent to suppress the protesters during the demonstration.
After his retirement, he works as a forklift driver. Eventually, he starts to uncover the truth from his past.
4.May 18 (2007)
Most of the protesters during the Gwangju Uprising were not part of the initial protest in front of the university but were acting in retaliation after their loved ones were attacked by the soldiers.
The main character, Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung) leads a peaceful life with his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Joon-gi) until the uprising happens.
Angry that his classmate is beaten to death by the military while they are not even college students, Jin-woo leads his friends into the streets to protest.
Meanwhile, Min-woo wants to stop his brother from taking part in the uprising.
This movie shows how the first attack on civilians on May 18 triggers other unassuming citizens to fight for what is right.
5.A Taxi Driver (2017)
While other movies inspired by the Gwangju Uprising are fictional, here is a movie that might be closest to the real event.
The story follows a taxi driver Man-seon (Song Kang-ho) who receives an offer to drive a foreign journalist from Seoul to Gwangju during the uprising.
The character is loosely based on real-life taxi driver Kim Sa-bok whose existence remained out of the public eye until the release of A Taxi Driver. He died of cancer in 1984, four years after the Gwangju events.
Meanwhile, the journalist Peter (Thomas Kretschmann) is based on the life Jurgen Hinzpeter (1937-2016) who filmed and reported on the Gwangju Uprising.
His widow, Edeltraut Brahmstaedt watched the movie with President Moon in 2017. The Blue House later released a statement saying, “The movie shows how a foreign reporter’s efforts contributed to Korea’s democratization, and President Moon saw the film to honor Hinzpeter in respect for what he did for the country.”
The film turned out to be a commercial success and was the second highest grossing film of 2017.