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For a filmmaker who’s been heralded as the future of South Korean cinema, director Ryoo Seung-wan has spent a lot of time thinking about the past.  Ryoo’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 2015 hit crime story, VETERAN, was 2017‘s BATTLESHIP ISLAND, a cinematic battle against Korea’s Japanese occupation, based on actual World War II events.  With his latest entry, Ryoo once again turns his eye to a moment of history perhaps missed by most of the world.  ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU is a dynamic depiction of a real-life 1991 incident, when two groups of diplomats, from both North and South Korea, became trapped at the heart of one of the bloodiest revolutions of the modern age.  Suspicious and resentful of each other, the two adversarial nations and must put aside their ambitions and prejudices to try to flee the violent outbreak of the Somali Civil War.

In our current age, South Korea’s prevalence in global pop culture has seen the world watching KPop icons, BTS, not only address a speech to the United Nations, but dance and sing in a music video recorded in Assembly Hall.  It’s difficult to believe that just thirty years prior, the Republic of Korea wasn’t even a fully-fledged United Nations member.  It desperately wanted to be; so, to that end, through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ROK tried very hard to lobby UN member nations with high amounts of votes to support their application.  

This is where we meet South Korea’s Ambassador Han and his beleaguered staff, tearing through the streets of the capital of Somalia, attempting to bri… er, persuade its president with some gifts from back home.  Sadly, luck is not on the side of the tardy, motley, perspiring team, and they can only watch as their narrowly-missed appointment with the president is turned into a clear lane for Ambassador Rim from North Korea, and his impressive, professional staff.

The contention between the two adversaries, who were one country and people just a generation before splitting into two entirely different enemy nations in a constant war, rises and metastasises as the window for the UN application draws to a close.  Both North and South Korea shamelessly employ dirty, potentially deadly, tricks to push their own agendas a little further, which adds more fuel to their worst perceptions about each other.  As the desperation grows, so do the demands of the corrupt Somalian government, unsubtly requesting straight-up pay for play, putting Han in an even more unworkable situation.  While South Korea was beginning miraculous economic growth in 1991, it’s not like they had a slush fund for greedy African dictators.  

Neither, apparently, did the Somali populace.  In the midst of the two Koreas’ finagling and backstabbing, civic unrest against their crooked leaders explodes all around Mogadishu with wave after wave of bloody attacks by anti-government rebels, answered with severe reprisals by the militarised police force.  

At the mercy of whichever faction holds the streets, the Korean visitors find themselves increasingly endangered.  While purely transactional, the diplomats’ attempted wooing of the government puts them in the crosshairs of the rebel faction, who see them as allies to corruption, and their enemy. 

Almost immediately, chaos rules, and the diplomats are cut off from gas, water, electricity and the ability to reach out for help or any homeland support, as gangs of young toughs loot the embassies and threaten the lives of those inside.  

After their headquarters is taken over and staff brutalised, the North Korean diplomats, with families in tow, are forced to show up on the doorstep of their rivals in the South Korean embassy and beg for shelter.  The question of whether the South will allow their biggest adversaries inside their gates is a heavy, potentially disastrous consideration for both sides, and is only decided because of the imminent threat of women and children being shot down in the street.  Even so, Somalian rule is chipping away fast, and despite their deeply ingrained suspicions and resentments, the two rival nations must align in unison to flee the war-torn country.

While the start of a terrible and ongoing civil war is rife with possibilities for just the sort of action extravaganza Ryoo Seung-wan is known for, the director plants the film most deeply in the relationships between the film’s characters.  The somewhat shambolic, workaday, South Korean embassy is perpetually in catch-up mode compared to the smooth, disciplined diplomats from the North, and much of the script’s humour isn’t far off that an office comedy, while more laughs come from the slapstick spy-vs-spy antics of the rival nations’ intelligence agents; neither of whom are quite the James Bonds they think they are. 

Ryoo fills the two embassies with all the tropes and stereotypes ingrained in each nation since their separation in 1953 (Poisonings! Specially trained spy babies! Indoctrination via cuddly Olympics mascot doll!), only to have their forced proximity under lethal circumstances be the impetus to warmly tear down those prejudices, or adding depth and explanation to actions and behaviours of one side that the other might previously not have understood.  Though the main events happen within a day or so, there is a sense of loss that each side was just beginning to understand the other when the sides must ultimately -- coldly -- separate.

These scenes of the human interactions between the North and South Koreans and the Somalis are fleshed in perfectly by ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU’s sterling ensemble cast.  Notably, there is the legendary Kim Yoon-seok (THE CHASER, THE YELLOW SEA, 1987) as Ambassador Han, Zo In-sung (Star of {to me} the greatest Korean movie ever made, A FROZEN FLOWER) as the South’s intelligence officer Kang, and the excellent veteran thesp, Heo Joon-ho {SILMIDO}, bringing an unexpected grace, dignity, and vulnerability to the North Korean Ambassador Rim.  There is also the luminous Kim So-jin (THE KING, ANOTHER CHILD), portraying delicate strength and quick-witted practicality as Ambassador Han’s wife.  The chemistry between the veteran leads and the entire supporting cast ticks together like a well-oiled machine, and it’s a seamlessness that shines through a film when the actors are all playing at the same level.  However, the plum in the movie’s Christmas pudding is actor Koo Kyo-hwan as the North’s intel man, Tae.

Ryoo Seung-wan has a marvellous prescience to introduce us to the actors we’ll be obsessed with tomorrow.  Starting with his own sibling, Ryoo Seung-beom, his wingman from his feature debut, DIE BAD, who reached his zenith in THE UNJUST and THE BERLIN FILE.  Yoo Ah-in had cut his teeth on TV dramas and youthful roles before Ryoo sharpened the intensity beneath the actor’s surface into the sociopathic shiv that was VETERAN’s unforgettable chaebol villain.  Koo Kyo-hwan is not new to cinema as an actor or filmmaker.  Koo’s roles in edgier, avant-garde fare, like JANE, and MAGGIE, have shown a compelling, chameleon-like screen quality that has raised his profile in the past few years.  He’s appeared as the terrifyingly unpredictable antagonist in the TRAIN TO BUSAN follow-up, PENINSULA, and in hit Netflix dramas, ASHIN: KINGDOM OF THE NORTH, and DP (Directed by our friend, Han Junhee).  Unpredictable is a good word for Koo’s acting style, because watching his scenes in any project, you never know which way he’s going to jump.  A perfectly mundane sequence becomes charged with electricity because of Koo’s seemingly effortless ability to twist or add a nuance in a way the audience wouldn’t expect.  While his role in ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU is not front and center, the seething tension Koo adds to the proud, protective North Korean intelligence officer, Tae, demands the audience’s eye.  Tae is like a firework ready to blow at any second, and it’s great fun to watch the perpetual clash of North and South between him and his cocky South Korean rival, Kang.  Tae’s hair-trigger temper gives moments with his boss, the Buddha-like Ambassador Rim, a touching, almost paternal quality that shows his position is more than just a job.

Character explorations aside, of course, a Ryoo Seung-wan film equals action: As the revolution kicks off, there are harrowing scenes of carnage in the streets, as Somalian turns against Somalian, including the hunting of the South Korean embassy’s trusted driver.  We learn how distinctly out of control of the situation the foreigners are, as North Korea’s embassy is invaded and looted, and intelligence officer, Tae, is brutally beaten by the gang of thugs he used to employ.  As also expected of a Ryoo film, there is a one-on-one fight between Kang and Tae working out some long-simmering resentments at an oddly placed moment.

Early on, Ryoo presents the oppressive heat and long, dusty, sun-cracked roadways that twine snakelike through the crowded capital, between fortress-like government palaces, and low, single-story shanties, before winding to the Mogadishu outskirts, where the sanctuary of the South Korean-allied Italian embassy sits.  As the danger grows, so do calls for foreign nationals to leave the country, and the Koreans combine their resources in the interest of mutual survival.  Their unanimous refusal to stay and wait for sure death results in their plan to create a convoy out of their collective rustbuckets, and carefully head out to the foreign embassy during the ceasefire of the city’s afternoon prayers.

From the sight of the staff, their families, including the smallest children, filling up sandbags, taping every book in the embassy on the inside and outside of each vehicle as an attempt at fortification, this escape takes a different urgency. These aren’t the cold-blooded killers, hardened cops, or spies who usually roam Ryoo Seung-wan’s movies; these are overworked salarymen, and their wives, and their small kids, and some young staffers.  Each had left a country locked in a 40-year civil war, to be thrown into another, nascent, horrifically violent civil war in a foreign country, where their only allies or familiar faces are those “enemies” from the other side of the DMZ.  There is a deeper, more personal connection to the risk the characters face, because they are so ordinary.  Having wisely spent time investing in the film's human relationships, Director Ryoo intensifies the audiences’ reaction to the nightmare they’re plunged into.

Cinematically, Ryoo puts the audience right alongside the characters as the biggest set piece begins.  He moves us into the four cars in the caravan, and along with the characters, we jump the moment the muezzin’s call to prayer acts as the starting pistol for their imperiled escape.  We see the paradox of the outside world, now silent and peaceful, as citizens who were wildly shooting guns at each other moments ago, are all on the sidewalks, kneeling side-by-side. 

As prayers wind down, and people begin to rise and rearm, noticing the odd-looking convoy with doors, books, and shingles-turned-armour spilling off, there is a sense of tangible panic as the audience internally yells for the caravan to go faster, but the cars can’t go more than a few feet without rolling over a dead body.  The ragtag band makes it to a police checkpoint, when a simple mistake results in complete pandemonium.  Under a fusillade of police ammunition, the convoy must now retreat back where they came from, in full-speed reverse. 

Cinematographer Choi Young-hwan propels us backwards through each of the four cars like one of the bullets penetrating their windscreens.  We feel the whiplash as the vehicles crash into each other, because they have no way to communicate, or see thru the small, single uncovered space in the drivers’ front windows.  We fight back a scream at one mother for not crouching low enough in the back seat with her little son, as police give chase with machine guns.  The caravan’s return past their now-abandoned embassy throws them from pillar to post, with looters pitching Molotov cocktails through the bullet-shattered windows, the police still shooting from the rear, and one particularly aggressive hitchhiker who won’t take no for an answer.  Besieged on all sides, the Korean contingent has no choice but to break through and reach the sanctuary of the Italian embassy, or face destruction.

It’s incredibly heart-pounding stuff.  Director Ryoo’s relative restraint in focusing more on the human drama playing out between the two rival nations, as the world around them burns, equates to pouring all his action goodies into this climax, and it’s a great payoff.  The textural rawness of the locations (The role of Somalia was played by Morocco), combined with the insanity of the “you were there” cinematography, and neck-snapping editing, is a new height for Ryoo.  Sadly, I was only able to view this at home, as opposed to in a cinema, but I was still left breathless and exhausted.  It might be sour grapes, but I wonder if I wouldn’t have been overwhelmed seeing it on a huge screen?  It’s blinding in the best way.

One is perfectly justified to equate Ryoo Seung-wan with fun, innovative action pieces, but with ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU, he is becoming much more.  His directs his powerful ensemble of actors like a conductor before an orchestra, knowing when to give a little more to one character or another.  He remembers to add his signature, off-hand humour throughout.  He does overwork sentiment a bit toward the end, which felt like a tepid shower after the blazing action sequence, with a few awkward moments where it seemed like he didn’t quite know how to connect one burst of excitement to another, which is a muddle in other Ryoo films, as well.  I think most viewers will be too tired to notice after everything else has been so satisfying. 

Those points aside, in his second foray filming around the globe, ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU makes the most of its stellar cast, stunning locations, and of course, the level of breathtaking action we’ve come to expect from director Ryoo Seung-wan – which he surpasses with this film – to give us a story filled with heart, humour and hope.

ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU denotes a new maturity and progression in Ryoo Seung-wan’s work, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec. 8th 2021

 

COMING SOON: Our Exclusive Interviews with ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU Director RYOO SEUNG-WAN and Star KIM YOON-SEOK

 

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