Escape from Mogadishu (South Korea, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

South Korean cinema is no longer the producer of small and idiosyncratic films that have to seep through the cracks of international cinema. It hasn’t been for years. Now, the native film industry is a powerhouse of large productions whose ambitions far exceed the humble beginnings of “New Korean Cinema” in the late 90s. The latest example of this trend of blockbusters is Ryoo Seung-wan’s new film, Escape from Mogadishu, a daring and adrenaline-pumped historical action drama that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Events take place in the titular capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, right before the start of the Somali civil war in 1991 (one that is still ongoing). The South Korean embassy is there to convince the Somalian government to vote for their membership in the UN. The North Koreans are trying to achieve just the opposite. The bitter rivalry between the two nations proceeds just as expected. However, when the rebellion gets out of hand, the Somali government can no longer guarantee the protection of the embassies from the rebels, leaving them open to armed attacks. War, however, makes for strange bedfellows. In the face of this threat, South Korean ambassador (Kim Yoon-seok) and North Korean ambassador (Huh Joon-ho) decide to put their differences aside in hopes of getting all their people out of Somalia alive.

Escape from Mogadishu is a film that we have seen many times before – Hotel Rwanda (2004), Blood Diamond (2006), The Last King of Scotland (2006), etc. – but never in Korean. And against all odds, that is enough to make it rise above the usual tropes and deliver a breathtaking experience full of politics, action, and heartfelt drama. The formula is obvious, yet its execution radiates originality. That is because more than the tight-knit plot or nail-biting action stands a wonderful cast of characters that elevate the film beyond its garden variety conception. A pair that stands out, for example, is the South Korean intelligence agent, Kang Dae-jin (Zo Ing-sung) and his Northern counterpart Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) whose relationship evolves the most throughout the film’s runtime. At their core, both characters are adamant symbols of their respective countries and ideologies, but they are not immutable. In the end, their humanity trumps their indoctrination.

In broad terms, there are to sides to Escape from Mogadishu: first is the recounting of the brutal events of the Somali civil war (from a Korean perspective, of course), and second is the collaborative escape of the North and South Korean embassies from the country. Though Escape from Mogadishu is ultimately NOT about the civil war, director Ryoo Seung-wan does an excellent job at depicting the horrors of the situation without simplifying or romanticizing any parts of it (a non-trivial achievement). In one scene, the local chauffeur of the South Korean ambassador turns up unconscious wearing scarf with the insignia of the rebellion. No one knows where he stands, yet that little bit of confusion is enough to lead the chief of police to kill him with a vicious blow to the head. Later on, the same police chief is paid to protect the South Korean diplomats, but before he has a chance, he’s attacked by the mob and publicly executed. The film makes no moral judgments – the government is corrupt and the rebels are irrational. In the end, everyone is trying to kill everyone, and the best we can hope is for our protagonists to get out alive.

Once rebellion breaks out, escape becomes the main focus of the film (it is in the title after all). Despite their animosity, the two embassies, north and south, successfully work together to overcome one of their toughest challenges. Along with many other aspects of the film, seeing North and South Koreans fraternize in unique situations is nothing new Park Chan-wook’s excellent Joint Security Area (2000) comes to mind but it is nevertheless inspiring to see the two sides achieve their common goal. The characters never attempt the impossible. “We are not talking re-unification here. We just want to get out alive” the South Korean ambassador says. With the hindsight of history, we know that the two sides will never reconcile. It is to the credit of the films direction and performance that such fatalism never hinders our enjoyment. The filmmakers are also not afraid to insert some levity in these tense situations, especially in the earlier scenes between the north and the south.

Ultimately, Escape from Mogadishu represents the best of what big budget mainstream Korean cinema has to offer – a singularly entertaining experience within a familiar formula.

Escape from Mogadishu opened the New York Asian Film Festival on August 6. It is distributed in the US by Well Go USA Entertainment.