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Korea Blog: “Detroit”‘s American Riot and “A Taxi Driver”‘s Korean Massacre

Earlier this month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit opened in theaters across America, dramatizing an increasingly oft-referenced eruption of violence in relatively recent American history. At just about the same time, Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (택시운전사) opened in theaters across South Korea, dramatizing an increasingly oft-referenced eruption of violence in relatively recent Korean history. The tagline of the American film’s poster insists that “it’s time we knew” exactly what happened during the 12th Street Riot that accelerated the Motor City’s long decline to come in the summer of 1967; the tagline on the Korean film’s poster needs to invoke no more than “a taxi driver going to Gwangju in May of 1980” for everyone to know exactly what he’ll drive into.

Having described Bigelow’s film as about “police violence — the violence of white police officers against black residents of Detroit,” New Yorker film critic Richard Brody dissents from its widespread acclaim, calling it not just a failure but an atrocity. “It’s clear that Bigelow intended to present a set of historical facts that would offend viewers’ sensibilities, spark righteous outrage at the brutality and the injustice inflicted upon the movie’s main characters, and induce viewers to reflect on the persistence of racist injustice in the United States today,” he writes. But the movie’s presentation of what happened in Detroit, especially a “protracted scene of captivity, terror, torture, and murder in the Algiers Motel,” makes him wonder how Bigelow and her collaborators could have filmed it at all.

“How could a director tell an actor to administer these brutal blows, not just once but repeatedly?” Brody asks. “How could a director instruct another actor to grimace and groan, to collapse under the force of the blows? How could a director even feel the need to make audiences feel the physical pain of the horrific, appalling police actions?” Detroit‘s “meticulous dramatization of events intended to shock,” he writes, “strikes me as the moral equivalent of pornography.” It makes me wonder how he’d judge A Taxi Driver‘s less aggressive but similarly unsparing depiction of the 1980 massacre in the city of Gwangju, whose still-unknown death toll, as against the 12th Street Riot’s 43 (along with more than a thousand injured and near-apocalyptic property damage) ranges from 144 to 2,000.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.