Thursday, August 05, 2021

Ryoo's Escape from Mogadishu

Somalia is a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, but it was considered a failed state even before the civil war broke out in the 1990s. Yet, as a member of the UN, it represented a key swing vote in South Korea’s bid to join the body. Of course, the one-party Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party regime had a greater affinity for their North Korean totalitarian rivals, but a ragtag ROK diplomatic contingent still did their best to lobby for their UN membership support. When the nation plunges into chaos, they must improvise to secure safe passage out, including possibly even working with their sworn DPRK enemies in Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Mogadishu is a high-stress, low-reward posting for Han Shin-sung, but it also represents the Foreign Service Officer’s first posting as an ambassador. Somalia represents an unambiguous career demotion for his intelligence officer, Counselor Kang Dae-jin, but they still have a friendly working relationship. Unfortunately, North Korean Ambassador Rim Yong-su constantly out maneuvers them when lobbying the corrupt President Barre. Yet, Kang uncovers evidence the North Koreans are secretly arming the rebels behind the scene (which Rim later denies and Ryoo’s screenplay remains cagey on).

As the rebels gain momentum, the country plunges into anarchy. Battles clash on the streets, but Kang manages to bluff the embattled government into assigning a security detail to their embassy, for a price. The North Koreans are not so fortunate. When their embassy is compromised, they are reluctantly forced to ask Ambassador Han for refuge, which he grants. However, Kang and his opposite, Tae Joon-ki are not about to set aside their spycraft.

Escape is indeed based on a true story, but it clearly was not well-reported in the West. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with North Korean politics can only imagine how severely an embassy staff would be purged after seeking shelter with the South Koreans, but the film does not go out that far. Instead, it is all about getting out of Dodge.

Filmed on location in Morocco (as was
Black Hawk Down), Ryoo and his team vividly recreate the exotic atmosphere and abject chaos of civil war Mogadishu. Like he did in The Berlin File, Ryoo nicely marries action with intrigue throughout Escape. It is tight, tense, and atmospheric. Ryoo really conveys a sense of fear and unpredictable violence that comes from the failed state experience.

Veteran thesps Kim Yoon-seok and Huh Joon-ho are both terrific as Ambassadors Han and Rim, respectively. They are grizzled, grouchy, and acutely dignified. Don’t you wish there were more movie protags like that? Zo In-sung is weirdly cold and squirrely as Counselor Kang, but Koo Kyo-hwan is appropriately serpent-like as Counselor Tae. Recognizable character actor Jung Man-sik also nicely plays against his hardboiled type as Han’s loyal consular officer, Gong Su-cheol.

Escape will be a huge international hit, because we would definitely like to see a “true-story-behind” special. Regardless, Ryoo stages some riveting scenes of house-to-house street warfare (especially since the Marxist government and Islamist rebels look equally scary). Highly recommended, Escape from Mogadishu opens tomorrow (8/6) in New York, at the AMC Empire.