Real-life heroes of “A Taxi Driver” pass away without having reunited

Posted on : 2018-05-14 16:14 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Jürgen Hinzpeter, a German reporter, and Kim Sa-bok, a taxi driver, both contributed to the May 18 Democratization Movement in their own way
Kim Sa-bok
Kim Sa-bok

Jürgen Hinzpeter, the reporter with German broadcaster ARD who covered the May 18 Democratization Movement in Gwangju in 1980, declared upon winning the second Song Kun-ho Press Award presented by the Cheongam Press Culture Foundation and the Hankyoreh in 2003 that he wished he could “meet again with the brave taxi driver Kim Sa-bok.” But in 2016, Hinzpeter passed away without ever having the change to reunite with his “partner.”

Kim seemed all but forgotten when a fictionalized version of his story was told to the world last year in the film “A Taxi Driver.” Kim himself had passed away many years before. But the footage Hinzpeter captured in Gwangju with Kim’s help has lived on. And now a documentary titled “The May 18 Hinzpeter Story” is set to premiere on May 17, a day ahead of the anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. The Hankyoreh met on May 9 with Kim’s oldest son Seung-pil, 59, who played a pivotal role in the documentary.

Kim Seung-pil had been an ordinary businessman before the opening of “A Taxi Driver” changed his life. He felt he could not turn down the flood of interview requests, seeing it as an opportunity to the share the story of his father and his lonely death. After first seeing the film, the younger Kim said he felt a “mixture of happiness and disappointment.”

“I was glad to see it showing how my father quietly contributed to democratization. But ‘Man-seop,’ the film’s version of my father, was a fictional character,” he said. “It was somehow troubling to me that people might think that Man-seop was actually my father.”

One of the things Kim would most like to set the record straight on concerns the events that led his father to Gwangju in May 1980. In the film, the character is shown intercepting another driver’s customer in order to earn a fare. But Kim explained that his father actually had a longstanding relationship with Hinzpeter.

He also showed a picture taken in Oct. 1975 showing his father with Hinzpeter, among others. The image showed his father on a survey with Hinzpeter and Ham Seok-heon, another figure considered a major contributor to the democracy movement.

“My father accompanied reporters with the foreign press under a reservation system. It appears that it was through those foreign reporters that his connection to the democracy movement was established,” Kim Seung-pil said.

Kim also claimed his father’s death was in its own way connected to the events of 1980 in Gwangju. After his experience there, he began drinking heavily and deploring how “members of the same people can be so cruel to each other,” the son recalled.

“I resented my father for his drinking back then, but when I think about it now, I feel like maybe he just could not bear the era he was living in,” he said.

“My father ended up dying of liver cancer in 1984,” he explained.

Kim said he hoped to share aspects of his father’s life that were not seen in the movie. To Kim, his father was the model of an ordinary yet bold citizen who did his best within his given place. If the world has become a better place since 1980 in Gwangju, he said, it is because of all the people who did what they could from where they stood.

“There are probably many people who contributed to democracy in unseen ways,” he said.

“I think it’s my place to honor my father by getting the word out about people like that,” he added with a smile.’

By Choi Min-young, staff reporter

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