From 2006 to 2016, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon was the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It wasn’t so long before that, though, that the country wasn’t even a member state. In the organization’s early years, the country was refused admission by the Soviet Union and other communist countries. They wanted to see North Korea admitted but the United States wasn’t going to allow that to happen without their ally getting in first. Faced with an intractable impasse, the two Korean rivals embarked on a diplomatic offensive in Africa in the 1980s to try to “influence” the voting. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t a smart strategy for the South, especially in a country like Somalia, which was ruled by a Marxist-Socialist government, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Unfortunately for them, though, they were outplayed every step of the way by their northern cousins who had begun their charm offensive many years earlier. That all changed, however, when the Barre government was toppled in 1991 in the Somali Civil War. In an instant, both Koreas became enemies of the new regime.
The film ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU recounts that period of history with, I assume, a fair bit of literary license thrown in for dramatic effect. South Korean director and co-writer Ryoo Seung-wan/류승완 (producer of EXIT) frames the story around South Korean Ambassador to Somalia Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok/김윤석), a career diplomat who was probably posted in the country because the foreign ministry didn’t know what to do with him. Always on his back foot when trying to one-up his North Korean counterpart, Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho/허준호), Han would probably be completely floundering if it weren’t for his intelligence officer, Counselor Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung/조인성). Kang is hot-headed though, and Han’s teddy bear-like demeanor makes them invaluable to each other. When the civil war erupts, the South Koreans find themselves stranded in the capital city without a way out. At the same time, Ambassador Rim finds his people in the same predicament, one that even his highly resourceful intelligence officer, Counselor Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan/구교환, PENINSULA/반도), can’t fix. With the noose slowly closing around all of them, Han and Rim, and Kang and Tae, have to put aside their mutual distrust of each other if they’re going to make it out alive.
Audiences will inevitably compare ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU to BLACK HAWK DOWN and ARGO, and stacked up against those two films, ESCAPE doesn’t fare too well. That being said, it’s not a bad film. Cut the running time down to 100 minutes (from its current 121) and do away with the buffoonery at the beginning of the film, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good thriller. As it is though, it’s quite average. The film was shot entirely in Morocco and Ryoo does a great job recreating the look and feel of the place. Judging from the accents, I think South African actors were used as stand-ins for the Somalis but I doubt many Koreans or Westerners would know the difference. To his credit, Ryoo includes some welcome human touches to the story including when the North Korean parents shield their children’s eyes from seeing the South Korean 1988 Olympic mascot, Hodori, and when the South Korean women prepare a dinner for everyone and the North Koreans are suspicious that it might be poisoned. The film really shines, though, when the two sides form a convoy of cars and race through the bombed out streets of the city, dodging volleys of bullets en route to their sanctuary.
The film premiered in South Korea at the end of July and within just one month it had become that country’s the most-watched film of 2021 — even outselling BLACK WIDOW. It opens here in Hong Kong on Thursday (September 16th). With distribution rights sold to over 50 countries, it will probably come to a cinema near you soon so check it out.
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