Release Date: July 28th 2021
Duration: 121 mins.
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Writer: Ryoo Seung-wan, Lee Ki-cheol (Script),
Starring: Kim Yoon-seok (Han Shin-sung – South Korean ambassador), Zo In-sung (Kang Dae-jin – intelligence officer), Heo Joon-ho (Rim Yong-su – North Korean ambassador), Kim So-jin (Kim Myung-hee – ambassador Han’s wife), Koo Kyo-hwan (Tae Joon-ki – NK intelligence officer), Jung Man-sik,
Escape From Mogadishu is a based-on-reality ensemble drama set amidst an action movie spectacle. With the backdrop of the Somali Civil War, it provides the pulse-pounding summer entertainment thrills with poignant moments of humanity as a group of opponents must join forces to survive scenes of carnage.
We are taken Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu, circa 1991. Already unstable, we witness bandits and government forces terrorising the local population and government business done with a massive side-order of corruption. Meanwhile, acting as an undercurrent to life in the city are news reports relaying dispatches from rebellious regions that signal Somalia’s oncoming slide into a decades-long civil war. The whys and wherefores of this turmoil are never gone into detail but what is presented feeds into another conflict, one between the staff of the South Korean embassy and their rivals from North Korea as each seek to curry favour with factions inside the failing Somali government in a diplomatic battle over securing votes for U.N. membership.
We are thus introduced to the main players in this film: South Korean ambassador Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok) and intelligence officer Kang Dae-jin (Zo In-sung) are racing around town organising meetings and feeding rumours of arms deals to various corrupt officials to influence opinion while the North Korean ambassador Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho) and the fiercely loyal North Korean counsellor Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) are sabotaging them at every turn.
Atmospherics, spycraft, and diplomatic subterfuge mark proceedings in this, the first third of the film, as well as serving as an introduction to an extended cast of characters from both North and South Korea. Apart from the occasional local, we are introduced mostly to embassy staffers and family members who relay character/world building personal details as they talk about the trials and tribulations of being stuck in a foreign country far from home. They also set in place a number of political and ideological positions that will set everyone in opposition with each other. Our empathy piqued and potential pitfalls placed, the Somali situation goes sideways as the rebellion reaches Mogadishu.
What unfolds in the second third of the film is a harrowing depiction of innocents, be they civilians or embassy workers, getting swept up in tides of violent conflict as the rebels, bandits, and government forces battle for control of the streets in waves of violence that ratchet up in intensity. Violent deaths through vicious police brutality, bloody public executions, and chaotic rioting happen, often so suddenly that it serves to startle and horrify the audience and also get across how perilous the situation is becoming until the embassies of both countries come under attack. It is then that the characters are faced with the limits of their Cold War brinkmanship in a situation where significant chunks of the local population have turned hostile. At this juncture, there is only one option for the characters: survive.
In the final third, the film morphs into a tense series of cat-and-mouse chases involving embassy people and the more violent elements of the local population.
The vulnerability and isolation of the Koreans is keenly felt, partly because children are involved, but mostly because we have already been introduced to these characters and have come to appreciate them. After seeing their political differences, the question becomes how they can overcome their differences and work together to escape the country. This is where some great performances come in as the ambassadors hold back their dogmatic intelligence agents – who get into a great one-sided fistfight – and step into leadership roles based on humanitarianism. It is affecting seeing the North Koreans admit they are in a moment of weakness and need aid and even more moving seeing the South Koreans set aside politics, speak heart to heart and allow their neighbours to keep their dignity. Not that it is entirely one-sided as the North Koreans bring ideas to secure everyone’s safety and it is necessary because the gunplay going off around them is ferocious.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan doesn’t shy away from depicting anything as batons crack skulls, bullets pepper buildings and vehicles, and punches pound people. It is all brought together in a final car chase where the Koreans have to evade or bash their way through the streets as they travel together. The editing, camera work here is frenetic but still easy to follow and done with so much speed that it will leave audiences breathless and the ending culminates in the message that, when you take politics out of it, they are one Korean family working together to overcome the obstacles in their way.
All of these moments are couched in great atmosphere thanks to the location.
Working closely with local filmmakers, Ryoo Seung-wan’s team spent three months of shooting in the Moroccan city of Essaouira. The sets and locations are entirely convincing as war-torn Mogadishu and it is intimidating stuff with huge crowd scenes in peaceful moments as well as riots which is when the streets are artfully decorated so they are littered with the wrecks of burnt-out cars, bullet-riddled bodies, and debris. Seeing the Koreans navigate this environment is absolutely engrossing because of this. The cinematography from Choi Young-hwan, a long-time Ryoo Seung-wan collaborator from Die Bad (2000) to The Berlin File (2013) and Veteran (2015), is top stuff as he uses “practical light” for moody locations lit by flames at the film’s most evocative moments.
Overall, this film provides the perfect opening for the New York Asian Film Festival’s 2021 edition with its intelligently ordered script, fierce action, and actors that catch our hearts so that they are in our mouths for the exciting finale where the car chases through the recreated city of Mogadishu leave us on the edge of our seats. The style on screen and action dictate that it should be seen on the biggest screen available for a really immersive experience. However you see it, it’s an exciting ride.
Escape From Mogadishu is the opening film of the New York Asian Film Festival and will be screened on Friday, August 6th at 6:30pm at Film at Lincoln Center. It is being handled by Well Go USA.