Five true crime stories that inspired Korean drama Taxi Driver

9 Mins read

The series has become widely popular due to its captivating narrative, well-developed characters, stylish fashion, and impressive cinematography.

Warning: This article mentions sexual assault, violence and bullying.

The thriller K-Drama stands out for its unique blend of black comedy, revenge, and horror elements. Through its intense storytelling, Taxi Driver offers a glimpse into the twisted minds of various criminals of different kinds and how the Rainbow Deluxe crew take them down.

It delves into the dark world of society’s most heinous crimes, highlighting the challenges faced by ordinary citizens battling medical malpractice and voice phishing scams.

The powerful breakout performances by leading actors like Lee Je-Hoon shed light on the grim reality of operating a “deluxe taxi” service and facing psychopathic adversaries.

The SBS series has become a cult classic of sorts which not only led the series to have two seasons but also get renewed for a third, which is a rare thing in the Korean TV Industry.

The show is also known for fearlessly addressing a range of dark and disturbing topics prevalent in South Korea, especially the cases that were not known worldwide until now, including sexual assault, workplace bullying, mental illness, abuse, gaslighting, school bullying and many more.

So let’s take a look back at the cases that inspired the arcs in the series.

The Cho Doo-soon Case and Sex Offender Release

A man in jackets, handcuffs and mask being lead away by police as protesters around them crowd them.
Korean television covers the release of offenders [Youtube: Korea Now]

In the opening scenes of Taxi Driver, we are introduced to the release of Cho Du Chul, a sex offender, who justifies his crimes by attributing them to his intoxicated state.

He promises to “reform and become a better person” and secure a reduction in his life sentence.

However, his encounter with the protagonist, Kim Do-Gi (Lee Je Hoon), takes a dark turn when he is abducted and confined in a makeshift prison cell owned by Season One villain Baek Sung Mi (Cha Ji Yeon).

This narrative bears a resemblance to the real-life Cho Doo-soon case, which left the South Korean population shocked and outraged.

In 2008, a man named Cho Doo-soon committed a heinous crime by sexually assaulting and inflicting brutal injuries upon an 8-year-old girl named Na Young.

The victim suffered severe internal damage as a result of the attack. During his trial Cho Doo-soon claimed that he was drunk at the time of the incident-this is considered a legal defence for rape in South Korea, and could not discern right from wrong. Surprisingly, the judges handed down a relatively lenient sentence of 12 years in prison.

On December 12, 2020, he was released, causing panic amongst the citizens, most of whom had kids. KOREA NOW spoke with several deponents, revealing the fear of living in the same area as Mr. Cho especially if he could commit such a crime again.

However, on the bright side, there was some hope in this case as in December 2023. Cho Doo Soon was in trouble for breaking curfew and as of May 2024, was recently imprisoned again.

The WeDisk workplace bullying revenge porn scandal

A Korean businessman slapping his employee
Secretly filmed footage was shown on Korean TV [YouTube: 연합뉴스TV]

The storyline of Taxi Driver was inspired by a distressing incident of workplace violence and bullying.

The character Ahn Go-Eun (played by Pyo Ye Jin) had a backstory involving her late older sister related to the UDATA case.

This inspiration came from the outrageous actions of Yang Jin-ho, the chairman of WeDisk, in 2018.

During that year, a video surfaced, revealing Yang Jin-ho’s brutal attack on an employee. This retaliation was in response to the employee’s attempt to file a complaint against him for his misconduct.

In the video, Yang can be seen continuously slapping an employee, and he even commands him to kneel as he continues to humiliate him.

He further compelled employees to consume alcohol excessively and not allowing them to go to the bathrooms as a result, putting their health at risk.

It’s reported that he made the managers dye their hair in different colours to make them look more colour-coded to his liking.

The victim in that viral slapping video ended up moving to a remote South Korean island, he said that he moved out of Seoul because “he could no longer bear with the humiliation he felt after the ass‌a‌ul‌t.”

It was disclosed that WeDisk, the file-sharing enterprise operated by Yang, is widely recognized in Korea as a prominent platform for the dissemination of explicit content.

Law enforcement authorities suspect that he amassed his wealth by permitting the storage of illegal materials such as revenge pornography and illicit spycam recordings, mainly of girls and women.

Yang Jin Ho was eventually apprehended and detained on charges related to digital sexual offences, as well as accusations of committing acts of violence and cruelty towards animals.

The Burning Sun Nightclub Case

People celebrating at a nightclub with Neon Lights.
The Black Sun nightclub was a popular venue in South Korean nightlife [Twitter/X: AllKPop]

Undoubtedly one of the most widely known cases featured in the series, the second season delved into the Black Sun nightclub case following Do-Gi’s narrow escape from a taxi bombing orchestrated by his former best friend and mole for the infamous Geumsa Organization, On Ha Joon/Kim Dan Woo (Shin Jae Ha).

Inside the nightclub, Do-Gi and his team, aided by a journalist and their new client seeking revenge, Kim Young Min (Baek Soo-Jang), made a shocking discovery.

They unveiled that the nightclub was just one of the numerous businesses owned by the sadistic criminal organization. This revelation led them to the season’s primary antagonist, the psychopathic leader known as the Bishop (Park Ho San).

The Bishop targeted Do-Gi and his team, not because they ruined his businesses, but because he was seeking new pawns to manipulate and kill in his twisted games out of sheer boredom and spite and because he was jealous of Do-Gi for being “pretty and successful”.

The nightclub served as a hub for various concealed crimes, including sexual assault and forced prostitution of minors, police corruption, drug trafficking, and other abhorrent acts.

This was based on the famous Burning Sun nightclub scandal which forever changed the viewpoint of the KPOP industry. Billboard reports that Burning Sun, a real-life establishment, opened its doors in February 2018 at Le Méridien Seoul Hotel in Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu.

The epitome of elegance and excellence in South Korea, the nightclub gained recognition for its fusion of EDM and Club music, VIP accommodations, and exceptional services.

The chain of events began with Kim Sang-Hyo, one of the establishment’s patrons, attempting to report a crime involving the exploitation of minors for sexual services.

Unfortunately, Kim found himself apprehended by the police on false charges of “harassing women.” This incident sparked a widespread investigation into the true nature of the club, as Kim diligently sought to prove his innocence.

As the investigation unfolded, it became evident that corrupt police officers were also entangled in the criminal network connected to the nightclub.

The case garnered attention due to its association with prominent K-Pop figures, including Seungri from Big Bang, who served as the club’s promoter and publicity director. It’s quite amusing how the series made a clever reference to him.

In the series, the is a character named Victor, who is a K-Pop Idol and was clearly inspired by Seungri, even sharing the same name which means victory in English. Other well-known celebrities were implicated in the scandal including Choi Jong-hoon from FT Island and singer Jung Joon-young.

Consequently, numerous accusations of sexual assault, drug smuggling (namely GHB that was used to drug the victims and ketamine) and incidents related to “molka” (which refers to the covert recording of individuals, particularly girls and women, without their consent, often using hidden cameras) were directed towards the entire club, with a particular focus on Seungri and other individuals involved.

The allegations stated that not only were the patrons molesting the girls and women in the VIP rooms, but they were also secretly filming these acts. Adding to the gravity of the situation was the revelation that many of these individuals were being exploited by being offered to wealthy and foreign investors.

It has also come to light that the individuals implicated, particularly those who are well-known, maintained a group chat on KakaoTalk where they nonchalantly discussed and detailed their atrocious deeds. This conversation resembled the casual banter one might hear in a locker room, discussing conquests of various women.

As a result, Seungri was arrested on charges of prostitution, corruption and many more and was removed from YG Entertainment. Jung Joon-Young was also charged with non-consensual camera filming and was subsequently removed from all the projects he was part of.

Both of them later attempted to apologise for their actions in order to gain sympathy for what they did, but no one bought it and the damage was already done.

The BBC recently aired a documentary about the Burning Sun case. However, they made a mistake by falsely stating that a KBS lawyer had contacted and coerced one of Jung Joon Young’s numerous victims to withdraw charges against him.

As a result, KBS took action against BBC for this error. Subsequently, BBC has recognized that this statement was false and has removed the incorrect information.

The Ghost Doctors case

A patient's hand in the hospital.
Ghost surgery was a common practice in South Korea [Unsplash: Olga Kononeko]

In one of the other storylines of Season Two of Taxi Driver, Do-Gi and his team, (thanks to a push by Chun Ji Hoon from One Dollar Lawyer no less), take on a case involving the Jeli Chakkan hospital. Their goal is to expose the hospital’s owner, Ahn Young Sook, after one of her patients falls into a coma due to her negligence.

The patient’s father has been protesting against Ahn since then. However, Do-Gi later uncovers a shocking truth – Dr. Ahn doesn’t perform the surgeries herself.

Instead, she has a medical salesman conduct the surgeries on her behalf while she enjoys drinks in a secret room. Even worse, the salesman who did the surgeries wasn’t a licensed doctor. This unethical practice has caused significant harm and even potential deaths to the patients involved.

This storyline is inspired by the real-life illegal practice known as “ghost surgery,” where an unqualified and unlicensed individual operates instead of the designated surgeon.

In South Korea, it has become a common practice, especially in the field of plastic surgery. Unfortunately, this practice has led to tragic outcomes, including the loss of lives.

One such case involved a 24-year-old named Kwon Dae-Hee, Kwon was described as a humble and kindhearted man who was insecure about his looks and wanted to do plastic surgery to improve himself, despite his family convincing him not to do it.

He still went ahead with it anyway but sadly, he met his tragic fate. It is worth noting that the surgery was performed by a nursing assistant.

Surprisingly, the doctor provided Lee Na Geum, Kwon’s mother, with the CCTV recording of the surgery for her to observe the procedure’s outcome. While this practice is not mandatory across the country, certain clinics opt for it as a means to assure the patient’s family that the operation was successful.

About the tape she says “I immediately felt that I needed that evidence”. While watching the recording, she discovered the unsettling reality of what truly occurred during the surgical procedure: The cosmetic surgeon initially began the incision on Dae-Hee’s jaw, but then left the room multiple times while an unlicensed student from medical school carried out the rest of the procedure on their behalf.

This is in direct contradiction to the clinic’s claim that the “head doctor would personally perform the entire operation from start to finish.

As a result, the “Kwon Dae Hee bill” was approved, making it mandatory to install CCTV cameras in operating rooms to guarantee the safety of patients during surgery.

Under the new legislation, healthcare facilities are required to inform patients in advance about the possibility of recording surgical procedures. If a patient or their guardian requests it, the clinic must record the surgical procedures of the medical staff on CCTV.

The Slavery at Salt farms

Salt evaporation fields in Sinan, Jeollanam-do, South Korea
The sale evaporation fields in Sinan, where people were worked in harsh conditions [Wikimedia Commons: Mar del Este]

This is the initial significant case that sparked it all: The Changsung Jeotgal Factory incident, where the proprietors operated a cruel form of servitude by deceiving new employees into believing they would secure better positions.

In reality, they were subjected to exhausting and meager work, and they had their private property and funds embezzled by those scammers who put them here.

The first client featured on screen, Kang Maria, a diligent and intelligent individual with autism who had recently left an orphanage, and aspired to work in the IT Department.

To her dismay, she was unexpectedly assigned to the factory. Not only was she compelled to perform menial tasks related to fish, but she also endured physical abuse, torture, and mistreatment if she dared to disobey or express discomfort.

Desperate to escape, Maria sought refuge with the police, only to be forcibly returned to the nightmarish environment where the mistreatment intensified.

This traumatic experience drove Maria to contemplate suicide. Yet, in a twist of fate, she discovered the number for Rainbow Deluxe Taxi, which ultimately became her means of seeking revenge. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Salt Farms Slavery scandal, which occurred on Purple Island in Jeolla Province, was the inspiration for this story. It came to light that unregistered employment agencies had deceived and trafficked disabled workers into exploitative and unsuitable jobs.

In 2014, a thorough investigation conducted by mainland police resulted in the rescue of over 60 slaves, the majority of whom had intellectual disabilities, from the islands.

In an interview with the Associated Press, one of the escapees, Kim Seong Baek, described the experience as “a living hell,” detailing the numerous instances of abuse and mistreatment he endured at the hands of the owners.

Although he was eventually rescued by undercover police who infiltrated the island, his life took a downward spiral, and he ended up living in a homeless shelter. Despite everything he went through, he expressed a desire to return to work for his former captors, stating, “I want to go back; I feel trapped here.”

Another mentally disabled man, Han Sang-Deok who was freed after 20 years of slavery said: “I just worked. I was there on my own. I went to work, I slept. Like that.” Luckily, Han was able to reunite with his family, who had long thought he was dead.

On the bright side, there was some justice as The South Korean government had to compensate three men with 80 million won (£45,412.17) as a form of justice.

These men had been enslaved on salt farms located in remote islands off the southwest coast of the country for an extended period of time.

The Seoul High Court held the government accountable for their suffering, stating that local officials and police had neglected their duty to adequately oversee their living and working conditions.

Featured image courtesy of SBS via Instagram.

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