A tonic for the pandemicís stagnation, Director Ryoo Seung-wanís latest film, ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU barrels through screens like a freight train, or more accurately like a caravan of fleeing Koreans. Based on a real-life 1991 incident, rival staffs of the South and North Korean embassies must put aside their political opposition and flee for their lives that the outbreak of the devastating Somali Civil War.
ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU
Director Ryoo Seung-wan
The Lady Miz Diva: In the past few years, weíve had South Koreaís BTS speaking at and even shooting music videos in the UN General Assembly. It was striking to watch ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU and discover how just 30 years ago, South Korea was not even a full member of the United Nations.
This film and your last film, BATTLESHIP ISLAND, focus on aspects of South Koreaís history that might not be known by many people. Was part of the reason for ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU to highlight that recent history, when South Korea was struggling a little bit to be regarded with other nations?
Ryoo Seung-wan: When I joined the project, it wasnít like I had in-depth thoughts about that. Actually, this project was the result of a series of coincidences that felt like fate that led it to what it is now.
But strangely enough, ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU does feel like an extension of BATTLESHIP ISLAND: The film features people who are trapped in situations that they never desired, and the nation is unable to help these individuals. And in the midst of war, our main characters must escape and the goal is very clear; they must return to their home.
So, because of the similarities between these two films, ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU might seem like an extension of what I did with BATTLESHIP ISLAND, but that was not intended. It wasnít as if I planned to do ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU after.
LMD: Iíve had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Kim Yoon-seok several times, including in 2019, when this project had just been announced. I mentioned how I liked that ďwith Director Ryoo Seung-wan, you are able to travel.Ē He laughed as he said: ďIím not very sure if I like that.Ē Obviously, that was meant as a joke, and when we interviewed again, he mentioned how he loved the experience of shooting in Morocco.
Was it your experience of filming in Berlin that started your cinematic wanderlust? Iím curious if it has become a goal or special interest to film Korean stories in overseas backdrops?
RSw: Thatís a difficult question to give a clear answer to, because this is a matter of sensibility. Itís not as if I logically calculate, ĎOh, these are the benefits of shooting abroad,í and planning things out like that. I just make decisions based on intuitive attraction to certain materials. But I am definitely driven by a curiosity for new and unfamiliar situations.
If there are certain principles that filmmakers should never lose, I think the first thing would be robust curiosity. If you rely on familiar characters and familiar environments, you become complacent with your storytelling. You end up relying just on your previous experiences and end up making the same choices, and that runs the risk of your films becoming very boring. But if you throw yourself into a world that you do not know, you become provoked by the tension that comes from it, and you become stimulated by the curiosity of things unknown, and I think that gives me a lot of excitement when creating a film.
LMD: Perfect segue. Mr. Kim mentioned spending three months filming with you in Morocco. I presume that you were probably the only large unit of Koreans making a feature film there at that time.
Did that enforced bonding of being in this group together in this foreign land create a sense that was perhaps different to filming in a studio in Korea, or perhaps created dynamics in the relationships between people -- the other actors -- that you were able to use in the film?
RSw: So, it was actually a bit over three months; it was four months of shooting with the actors. Crew members, including me, were there much earlier to start prepping for the film. There hasnít been a project in Korea where a crew of that size and a budget of that scale all went to another country to shoot completely on location abroad. And so, we were all very excited, but we were also very concerned. One of my biggest fears was that maybe during this long period of shooting together in this location, might make some relationships quite difficult.
You know, making the film may seem very special on the outside, but in reality, itís just a bunch of people coming together, living together, to join forces and create this one thing. In the end, itís just all about people. And itís not as easy as it sounds for a group of people to live together and work together for such a long period of time. If you look at DAY FOR NIGHT by Truffaut, you know in the opening they say that filmmaking is like traveling in a carriage together; the trip seems well in the beginning, in the middle you want the trip just to be over, but by the time the trip is over, you want to leave on another trip. I think thatís a perfect analogy for what filmmaking is like.
It was the same for us as well. In the beginning, we were all excited and happy to start the project; and then during production, some issues would come up, and people would have a hard time overcoming certain obstacles, and so for me, it was very important that everyone was very considerate of one another.
And so, Kim Yoon-seok, was a great pillar for this entire trip, because he said it would actually be quite dangerous for everyone to become so close so fast. So, because this is a long journey, we have to take things slow, and pace everything very deliberately. So, he made sure that all the actors and the crewmembers got to know each other and form relationships at a slow, appropriate pace.
If we had shot this in Korea, we would never have discovered how well our actors cook. This was four months of shooting in another location, we had nothing to do by the end, so in the end, everyone was just cooking for each other.
LMD: We went on and on about what a find and how very special Yoo Ah-in is in VETERAN. Even though heíd done many things by then, his performance made a huge mark: I just watched a drama the other day where they mention his VETERAN character by name, like itís a personality trait.
I feel like lightning struck twice with Koo Kyo-hwan. That fellow is going to be something big. Heís a very different style of actor to anyone working now. Thereís something a little Daniel Day Lewis meets Al Pacino and goes out to lunch with Dennis Hopper about him. He has a very under-the-skin intensity and, and you canít take your eyes off him on the screen. He has a proclivity for choosing outside-the-box roles and heís also a director. What made you think he was right for Tae Joon-ki?
RSw: Koo Kyo-hwan is a star actor in the Korean indie scene. I really loved the indie films that he was a part of, and also, heís an incredible filmmaker, as well. His biggest strength lies in just how special he is. Itís very strange when you shoot with him, and itís not a matter of how good his acting is.
As an actor, he just exudes this very odd energy, but the fact is, in reality, he so innocent, and very childlike. Thereís a big disparity in his actual personality and the energy he exudes as a performer, and I think that is something you canít really see from adult actors these days, this childlike sensibility and energy.
As a director, I have a few conflicting sides to me; where, one, I really appreciate performances that are meticulous from very well-trained actors, and on the other hand, I really love the wild energy that exudes from actors who are untamed; who are still wild -- but Koo Kyo-hwan doesnít belong in either category. To kind of give a metaphor for Koo Kyo-hwan; heís kind of like a very clean tabula rasa -- piece of paper -- left in the middle of a wild field.
LMD: ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU is centered on a very real, ongoing civil war in the nation of Somalia. What steps did you take to be respectful of that culture and their tragedy?
RSw: First of all, because this film is about a civil war that erupted in another country, it was very important for us to understand and educate ourselves on the history and the culture that surrounded the civil war at the time. But to be honest and confess, there arenít that many experts on Africa in Korea.
So, we did our very best to conduct thorough research to seek consultations and study up on the material, but during the process, what occurred to me is that it was important to have a serious attitude toward all of this.
I set a principal that I shared with all the actors, the crewmembers, and all the people involved in the production; and so the important principle that we all shared was that we are dealing with a very extraordinary material, a civil war in Somalia that is still continuing to this day, and we must not exploit, or just utilise that narrative as materials for the film.
It must not be exploited just for dramatic effect, or to create an entertaining film. We must be very cautious in how we utilised this setting, and it was also very important that we were not hypocritical in how we dealt with this material. We must be quick to accept what we can do and what we cannot do, and do the best we can in the realm of what we can do.
LMD: This film was supposed to have been released last year, but was delayed due to the pandemic. What did it feel like to finally see the film released, and for audiences to welcome it into cinemas, as it has become South Koreaís biggest box office hit of 2021?
RSw: First of all, it was not easy theatrically releasing the film: It was at a time when the Korean CDC was very strict about the regulations, and things were quite different from what was going on last summer. It was also when the Olympics were happening.
But with my previous work, BATTLESHIP ISLAND, when it was being released in Korea, there was a very complicated controversy surrounding the film: It was a slightly unrelated issue that we had not expected at all, and so because of that misunderstanding, the film wasnít really being understood, or delivered properly to the audience. So, after going through that huge struggle, the waves that followed the pandemic was easier to deal with.
Before, and now, my goal has never been to achieve some sort of record-breaking feat at the box office. It doesnít matter how many people come watch the film, whatís important is that they choose to come watch this film and gain some sort of emotional reaction to it. So, that relationship with the audience has always been more important than the numbers. And more than anything else, this film has to be experienced in theaters.
It was when theaters were slowly starting to close one by one, and disappearing, that even I was afraid of that filter just disappearing. I wanted to prove that there are some movies out there that are meant for the theaters. But, thankfully, a lot of people in the Korean audience were very receptive and responded well to the film, and so, a lot of people were fortunately able to see it.
LMD: What is next for you?
RSw: My next film will be very different than ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU. Itís a crime film set in the 1970s, in a very small oceanside port town in Korea, surrounding some smugglers. And itís also a film that features female characters, which is the first since NO BLOOD, NO TEARS.
It will be an opportunity to watch the very fascinating action scenes, and also hear some very interesting Korean music from the 70s. And more than anything else, the charming actors and their incredible performances will just keep your eyes locked on the screen.
LMD: Is there a title?
RSw: SMUGGLING is the working title. And I think will be the first genre film that features sea divers as the main characters.
LMD: Do you mean haenyeo?
RSw: Yes, haenyeo.
LMD: Wow, thatís amazing: Over the past few years, Iíve been reading
many historical and fiction books about the haenyeo of Jeju Island.
LMD: Itís interesting that you mentioned your upcoming film takes place in the 1970s, because various points of the amazing action and car chase sequences in ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU reminded me of Fred Zinnemannís THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, or movies by John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, and others from the 60s and 70s. I wondered if you already had the 70s in your head?
RSw: With ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU, actually, I didnít want have any references, because itís based on a real event that actually happened in reality; so I very much wanted to contain the narrative in that real world, and create new things for the story.
I think the scenes that youíre thinking of, they were all unconscious: They are all habits that are just ingrained in my body at this point. They are my sensibility and my taste at this point that just intuitively came out during the filmmaking process.
So, films like BULLITT and THE WILD BUNCH, they are films that Iíve seen more than my own films, so they are just an ingrained part of who I am.
~ The Lady Miz Diva
Dec 8th, 2021
ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU is now available on Blu Ray and on major streaming services. Visit WELL GO USA for more information.
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