South Korean media has become exceedingly popular the world over in recent years, thanks in large part to brilliant films like Parasite and extremely catchy TV dramas like Squid Game. These works gain mass appeal in part because they use big budget Hollywood-style production values to tell deeply human, grounded stories. Fans of Korean cinema know that this is nothing new, but there’s been a certain… spark, for lack of better word, over the last five years or so, taking these highly compelling tales from the niche to the mainstream. What was once the best kept secret in film is now appointment viewing.
This trend continues with Escape From Mogadishu, directed and co-written by Ryoo Seung-wan, known for his skills in action films. Combining elements from intense modern war films like Argo and Black Hawk Down, Ryoo crafts an absolutely masterful, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that’s suspenseful as well as intelligent, because at its heart it’s about people setting aside their differences to work together rather than just blowing each other away.
During the 1980s, before either side had membership in the United Nations, diplomats from both North and South Korea lobbied African leaders heavily to sway votes in their favor. In Somalia, South Korean ambassador Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) is at a severe disadvantage compared to his Northern counterpart, Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho from Netflix’s Kingdom), both of them falling victim to the underhanded methods of their Counselors/Intelligence officers, the cool and calculating Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung) and the resourceful and hotheaded Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan from Peninsula).
With the corrupt Somali government openly demanding bribes for support, the two delegations come close to loggerheads in their attempts to undercut one another. The game of cat and slightly less experienced cat is both intriguing and at times downright funny. There are many war films that rely solely on the macho façade that largely turns into a dick-measuring contest between the adversaries (basically anything by Michael Bay, though his recent Benghazi movie sticks out more than most in this regard), but Ryoo immediately bucks that trend by making sure the plot is led not by muscly soldiers, but by sly bureaucrats, telling us in no uncertain terms that wit and thought will win the day here, rather than raw violence, though there’s still plenty of that to be had as an outside threat.
The rivalry is put on hold when rebels against the rule of then-President Mohamed Siad Barre break out in violent riots near the capital, forcing the entire diplomatic corps to go on lockdown. Over the course of several weeks, supplies dwindle, embassies empty, and people are murdered in the streets. By early 1991, Mogadishu is a complete war zone, and the North Koreans are forced to evacuate after their compound is ransacked. With the Chinese embassy now little more than a fireball, they are out of allies. Rim leads his people to the only other possible option, the South Korean embassy, where he and Han must come up with a plan to get all of their people out of the country.
The contrast of the bloodbath going on outside the embassy walls (Counselor Kang has successfully bribed local police to provide protection, or they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did) with the mistrust and subterfuge going on inside is palpable. As people are mowed down left and right, two sets of people whose only visible difference is a flag cannot initially come together. Rim will not eat the food Han provides until Han eats it first, proving it’s not poisoned. Kang takes surreptitious photos of the group and tries to use their passports to forge conversion documents to force the Northerners to defect. Fistfights break out in dark offices while guns and missiles explode mere meters away from the open windows.
And yet, the key element to all of this is that ideology is basically not discussed. There are references here and there, but mostly just as tossed off dialogue used to illustrate irrational fear and occasionally draw a laugh. For example, when the North Koreans enter the embassy and surrender their weapons, one of the South Korean staffers still fears the children being trained as martial arts assassins. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic. But apart from that, there are no judgments about either country’s government, because even though they all serve their respective regimes, their policies are irrelevant at this stage. All that matters is survival, and just as all politics make for strange bedfellows, the crucial moment when Rim and Han allow themselves to be honest and trust one another is where the story is at its peak, giving everyone a chance to make it home.
However, we must bear in mind this is still an action film, so how are the set pieces? Two words: fucking phenomenal! While mostly relegated to the background, the moments when the violence reaches the Koreans’ doorsteps – figuratively and literally – are some of the strongest bits of war staging I’ve seen in recent years. A climactic car chase is photographed with long, unbroken shots side-by-side with the speeding vehicles. There is no hint of infamously bad “Stormtrooper Aim” going on when the guns are blazing. Suspense builds as cars quietly roll through the streets, running over dead bodies left in the road, while the Somalis still alive go about afternoon prayers like nothing is happening. In one of the most tense scenes of the entire year of cinema – to say nothing of this movie – the North Koreans are cornered by a group of children holding machine guns, making noises as if they’re firing them, and no one knows how to react until their own children play dead like it’s part of a game, only for the kids to fire the guns in the air for real and scare the bejesus out of you for a few seconds. This is some truly heart-racing stuff, a credit to Ryoo’s talent behind the camera.
It’s no wonder that this became the highest grossing film in South Korea this year. It has everything you’d want in a blockbuster action thriller. But it elevates itself to the 2021 pantheon by virtue of keeping those highly intense, graphically-orchestrated moments focused as a service to the story, rather than simply being the story itself. Deep down, this is a movie about humanity, about seeing people for who they truly are, with no pretense, and learning how to work together for common cause. That’s an essential message for anyone, not just people in such historically acrimonious circumstances as Koreans. That we can have such an earnest and honest lesson in the midst of some of the best war action you’re likely to see – while still promoting the smart guy solutions, no less – is no small feat.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Korean cinema? What are your favorite action films? Let me know!