Twenty years ago Ridley Scott’s extraordinary film “Black Hawk Down” chronicled both the intensity of the combat and the heroism of the American troops trapped in the war-torn streets of Mogadishu during some of the most violent year’s of Somalia’s civil war. In reality there were many harrowing stories that took place leading up to the events of “Black Hawk Down”. Other nations also came face-to-face with the horrors that ripped the struggling country apart.
“Escape From Mogadishu” is South Korea’s submission for Best International Film at the upcoming Oscars and it tells one such story. Directed and co-written by Ryoo Seung-wan, this thrilling and often absorbing action thriller is based on some pretty spectacular real events. It chronicles the plights of the North Korean and South Korean embassies who found themselves trapped in Mogadishu as it quickly plunged into violent and bloody chaos.
While the action is fierce, one of the film’s most compelling elements is the attention it gives to the politics at play. Not just between the two Koreas, but also between them and the wobbly Somali government. Ryoo Seung-Wan and his co-writer Lee Gi-cheol give a surprising amount of early attention to the testy diplomatic landscape where two nations jostled for position in hopes of gaining status that would expand their impact well outside of Somalia’s borders.
To set things up, in the 1980s South Korea had not yet been approved for membership in the United Nations. The continent of Africa had the most votes at the UN, so in 1987 South Korean diplomats were sent to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Their hope was to develop a relationship with the Siad Barre led Somali government and in turn earn votes for UN membership. But at the same time, North Korean diplomats were lobbying members of the Somali government in an effort to block South Korea’s efforts. It essentially led to a diplomatic war between the two rival Koreas.
Jump ahead to 1990. South Korea’s Ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok), his intelligence officer Kang (Jo In-sung), and his secretary Gong (Jung Man-sik) try to penetrate the levels of corruption within the Barre regime. Meanwhile North Korea’s Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) and his volatile second in command Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) work to undermine any and all South Korean progress.
Amid the political and diplomatic wrangling, Ryoo slips in brief glimpses of the growing unrest in the Mogadishu streets. These scenes are vivid precursors to what’s to come once the armed rebels under the command of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid enter the city. Soon a full-scale war is underway between the violent rebels and what’s left of Barre’s ruthless military. Ultimatums are made to every embassy and bounties are put out for anyone who worked for or with the Barre government. Suddenly UN membership takes a backseat for both the North and South Koreans. “From now on, our goal is survival.”
“Escape From Mogadishu” quickly becomes exactly what it’s title suggests as the two small groups of delegates and their families, split by decades of tension between their own countries, must come together if they’re to have any chance to get out of the city alive. And with communications down and no way to contact either Seoul or Pyongyang, it’ll take setting aside and working through their mutual distrust, paranoia, and animosity in order to escape.
Ryoo Seung-Wan nimbly manages both the human struggles and the action. Strong performances and a good attention to detail make for a tense and immersive experience. Meanwhile themes of compassion, sympathy and humanity run throughout the story. And its hard to miss the straightforward commentary that speaks candidly to the bitter national divide between the two Korean nations. Meanwhile, the action sequences impress and include one of the coolest shots of the year – a slick camera trick where we weave in and out of four separate cars in a convoy as they race down the street amid a hail of bullets. I won’t spoil the context but the camera work is lights out.
One place where the movie struggles is with tone. There are some strange yet broadly funny moments early in the movie that feel oddly out of sync especially once you see where the movie goes. And there are times where the action seems a lot more rooted in genre than reality. But those issues hardly tarnish the many things “Escape From Mogadishu does right. You can’t help but be pulled in by this exciting true account with its strong underlying message of unity. And while its ending is never in question, Ryoo steers clear of a conventional finish and leaves his audience with plenty to think about. “Escape From Mogadishu” is out tomorrow (October 19th) on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS