A tiny city turned out to demonstrate against authoritarian rule, South Korean special forces went in, and when the smoke cleared, more than 200 protesters were dead.
The Kwangju uprising of May 1980 — an event analogous here to China's Tiananmen Square massacre nine years later — has haunted South Koreans for 27 years. It marked the birth of a strong strain of anti-Americanism and continues to bedevil U.S. relations with one of its closest allies in Asia.
Now it has become the subject of a mainstream movie.
"May 18th," produced by CJ Entertainment, South Korea's largest film-production company, opens next month. CJ Entertainment is an affiliate of corporate giant Samsung and a partner with the U.S. production company DreamWorks.
The movie stars South Korea's most famous actor, Ahn Sung-ki, as a former commando embroiled in the uprising, alongside heartthrob Lee Jun-ki as a student protester.
"I created it as close to the truth as possible," director Kim Ji-hoon said at a screening for foreign reporters yesterday. "It's purely based on fact."
However, one Westerner who was in South Korea at the time of the clashes remained unconvinced after watching the film.
"I don't think the evolution of the battle was accurate, but some of the moods of the time were," said Don Kirk, an American reporter who covered Kwangju and consulted with the filmmakers for accuracy.
With South Korea this year celebrating 20 years of democracy, the events of Kwangju have not faded from popular memory.
South Korean special forces, dispatched to suppress anti-government demonstrations in the southwestern city of Kwangju on May 18, behaved brutally.
Furious citizens responded by looting weapons from arsenals. The "black beret" special forces retreated on May 21, leaving citizen militias in control of the city.
Less than a week later, the regular Korean 20th Infantry Division retook the city after more fighting.
President Chun Doo-hwan, a general who had seized power in a coup five months earlier and declared martial law, painted Kwangju as a communist rebellion.
Today, the tragedy is viewed as the violent suppression of a democratic protest. Official investigations found that 207 civilians were killed and more than 900 injured. Some claim the real numbers are much higher.
Perceived U.S. support for Mr. Chun — and a widespread belief that Washington agreed to or facilitated the deployment of South Korean troops to Kwangju — sparked the first wave of anti-Americanism in modern South Korea.
Seven months after the riots, the U.S. Information Service library in Kwangju was burned down by protesters.
"The apparent support for the Chun Doo-hwan regime was the starting point of anti-Americanism," said Peter Bartholomew, a U.S. businessman resident in South Korea since the 1960s. "It was unpleasant for any Caucasian to be on the streets, especially if there were drunk students around."
Mr. Kim, the movie's director, contacted retired U.S. Army Gen. John Wickham, who commanded U.S. troops in Korea in 1980, to confirm facts, but the movie sidesteps sensitive issues of American involvement.
It barely mentions the U.S. role — or that of the Chun government — focusing instead on personal melodramas surrounding the characters.
"It's still unresolved how involved the Americans were," Mr. Kim said. "I did not emphasize the American role, as this film is for Koreans, not Americans."
Gen. Wickham and then U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen declined to be interviewed in official Korean inquiries into the affair in 1988.
A 1989 U.S. report — posted on the U.S. Embassy Web site — states that the South Korean troops involved were not under U.S. command and that Washington had protested Mr. Chun's imposition of martial law.
However, the report also notes that the U.S. government "reluctantly" agreed to the 20th Division's dispatch, thinking it would be more restrained than the special forces units that had first confronted demonstrators.
Many South Koreans, particularly pro-democracy activists of the 1980s who drove Mr. Chun from office and went on to become prominent public figures, continue to doubt American protestations of innocence.
"What the U.S. government said is a big lie," said Im Jong-in, an independent member of the National Assembly, on Wednesday. "At that time, the U.S. had power over troop movements."
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun won the 2002 election amid large anti-American protests triggered by the deaths of two schoolgirls in a road accident with U.S. troops. Both Washington and Seoul have worked since then to ease the sources of anti-American discontent.
Over the years since Kwangju, anti-Americanism has waxed and waned. It appears to be on the decline at the moment.
A poll conducted this month by Chosun Ilbo, the country's top-selling newspaper, and Korea Gallup found that 50.6 percent felt positive toward the United States compared to 42.6 percent with a negative view.
Just before the 2002 election, the same survey found 32.7 percent of South Koreans were pro-American while 53.7 percent held negative views.
Some South Koreans are concerned the new film may revive old enmities and passions from the 1980s.
"I don't want this film to give people the wrong impression," said Lee Tae-ha, a former commando who deployed to Kwangju. "Everyone was a victim. Koreans should embrace this event as a growing pain on the road to democracy."