blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Escape from Mogadishu (2021, Ryoo Seung-wan)

Escape from Mogadishu is almost incalculably problematic. I can't do the math, and I'm sure there's a bunch I don't even see, but it's a doozy. It's a South Korean "inspired by a true story" about the Somali Civil War, specifically the South Korean diplomats and the North Korean diplomats working together to get out. It's done in the style of a Hollywood bureaucrats in danger thriller, which bakes in a gaggle of new problems. Including showcasing African poverty for first-world consumption–it's a white man's burden picture, only it's not about the white men. Instead, it's about Koreans doing a riff on it, trying to benefit from the behavior. Only for different reasons—South Korea and North Korea need African nations to sign off on them joining the U.N., so the first act contains wacky bureaucrat comedy. Just with guns, violence, and racism.

Then there's the stuff about religion, including the allied but foolishly corrupt Somali government apparently being secular and the rebels being Muslim. The insurgents care about their children; the government bureaucrats and thugs don't even care about each other. Plus, there's static between the South Korean Christian evangelical and the Buddhists. Further complicating, the evangelical (Kim So-jin) is the wife of the ambassador, Kim Yoon-seok, and is using that unofficial position to force her religion on them.

Then all the stuff with the North Koreans and the South Koreans. The film humanizes the North Koreans—callous, jingoist bigotry is left to the dueling intelligence officers, Jo In-sung and Koo Kyo-hwan. Koo's a diehard Communist; Jo's a diehard asshole. Jo's never in it for capitalist ideology; he always just wants someone to shit on. Starting with the native Somalis (while Koo brings care packages to outcast school children). But Koo also likes pranking the South Korean embassy, something his boss, Huh Joon-ho, finds amusing. Especially since he's been a diplomat for twenty years or something and Kim Yoon-seok's just there on temporary assignment.

There's a lot of back and forth with the two sets of people learning they're just people, with some well-timed reveals about the shitty police state the North Koreans all live in. Of course, some South Korean bureaucrats are shitty people too, but not all of them. It's a mess.

It's also extremely well-made and mostly well-acted. The good performances make up for the middling ones, which is really just Jo, but he's always around, consistently middling, and always an asshole. He does get a good fight scene, though it does work to call back to an opening scene observing since Africans make racially uninformed observations about Koreans, can't Koreans really do the same?

However, the last thirty minutes are mostly phenomenally directed "real people in danger" action thriller. Director Ryoo, editor Lee Gang-hee, and cinematographer Choi Young-hwan turn in a truly harrowing sequence. At some point in the first half of Escape, I thought the movie's goal was to have a quote where someone calls it "harrowing." I never thought it'd get there, but it does. The harrowing caravan escape sequence is harrowing. It even brings the film higher than it finishes; Ryoo and co-writer Lee Ki-cheol can't resist getting cheap digs in at the North Koreans and then some macho character development.

Huh's performance is phenomenal. Kim Yoon-seok's very good, but he's mainly opposite Jo, who's never good. Or they're doing a comedy bit with Jeong Man-sik, who plays the incompetent career bureaucrat trope. Koo's okay as the North Korean spy guy, but it's a caricature part and corresponding performance.

The first half is a long slog. The second half is over too soon. But it's definitely far below "it's the best they could do regarding a complex situation." Escape's confrontational and proud of its bric-a-brac politics, which never serve the characters, just the film. It's intentionally craven. So whether or not the multiple hurdles, pitfalls, and just plain ugliness are worth getting through the rest for that great Escape sequence depends on the individual viewer.

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