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Escape from Mogadishu
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by Jay Seaver

"(Time to Get) Out of Africa"
4 stars

Ryoo Seung-Wan's "Escape from Mogadishu" is primarily being touted as an action movie, although it is more a film that meticulously builds up to the big action sequence at its climax. A minor distinction, perhaps, but it doesn't hurt to set one's expectations accordingly: It's not a non-stop thrill ride (and it's worth noting that the original Korean title is just "Mogadishu"), but Ryoo sure knows how to let the audience leave the theater on a high note.

Ryoo opens by reminding the audience that, during the 1980s, neither South Korea nor its northern neighbor were part of the United Nations, and with the African continent having the most votes on that matter, both countries are making major charm offensives. In 1990, that means Ambassador Han Shin-Sung (Kim Yun-Seok) and Secretary Gong Soo-Cheol (Jeong Man-Sik) are awaiting the arrival of Counselor Kang Dae-Jin (Zo In-Sung), whose diplomatic bag contains a number of "gifts" for Somalia's leader (Kang is also clearly working for the KCIA), only to be waylaid by rebels on their way to meet President Barre. They suspect the work of North Korean Ambassador Rim Yong-Soo (Heo Jun-Ho) and Kang's opposite number, Tae Joon-Ki (Koo Gyo-Hwan), and plant a story implying that North Korea is supplying the rebels. Whether they are or not, the rebels make it into the capital city near the end of the year, trapping the missions in their embassies while they try to find some way out of the country with flights grounded and communications out. And when the DPRK mission is forced out of their building and unable to take refuge with an ally, the ROK embassy may be their only hope.

There's a lot going on here, and you could probably make a fairly interesting dark comedy just about how the Korean embassies in these countries try to outmaneuver each other, deal with the absurdity of there often being no Korean visitors or interests beyond UN votes to assist, and have internal conflicts. At times, it seems like Ryoo is going for something like that - not comedy, per se, although he does open with gags about Han's chronic tardiness and does have a memorable moment built around how his generally nice wife Cho Soo-Jin (Kim Jae-Hwa) is sort of presumptive in her Christianity to the point where it annoys the other women there, just sort of doing a lot of procedural cloak-and-dagger set-up to make sure the audience understands just how difficult it is for the two missions to trust each other even in the middle of a life-or-death crisis, although there's also something enjoyably ironic about how Mogadishu is that movie until outside events send it in another direction.

It makes for a couple of very nice performances by the actors playing the ambassadors, and how they come at their roles from different directions. Kin Yun-Seok's Han is introduced as fairly lightweight, not exactly mocked, but one can easily see how this guy winds up assigned to an African backwater even though he's put in the time to make it to the level of ambassador, which also makes him an interesting clash with Zo In-Sung's Kang. Zo often comes off as playing things a bit broader than the rest, a smirky hardliner maybe not accustomed to accountability. It's worth noting that Koo Gyo-Hwan plays Tae as a mirror, maybe not the greatest performance but a clever indicator that the ROK and DPRK were sometimes more alike than different in this era. On the other hand, Heo Jun-Ho's performance as Ambassador Rim is one of the film's greatest pleasures - what plays as a gruff adversary early on grows more experienced and dignified as the film goes on, his irritation at the South being johnny-come-latelies to Africa early on highlights how humbling it is to ask Han for help later.

(It is worth noting that the film's treatment of Mogadishu and Somalia itself is not nearly so generous as that of the diplomats from the DPRK and their families. The closest thing to a Somali character who isn't corrupt or treacherous is the comic-relief cabbie at the beginning, with even the embassy's driver presented as a dangerous rebel. It's an admittedly a dangerous, violent situation, but there occasionally seems to be unneeded effort expended in making the Somalis nothing but obstacles to the Koreans.)

For someone mainly known as an action guy, Ryoo holds back until relatively late, although both the initial attack on the embassy car and a fight between Kang and Tae are fairly well-done. Still, he's clearly going for broke with the last mad multi-car dash through the city, from how he spends time building up to it with the parties doing their best to armor the cars with books and sandbags to the ominous image of rebels picking up their guns as daily prayers end and what head start the group has managed evaporates. After that, Ryoo and his crew do a terrific job of switching between wide-open shots that let the audience see where the bullets are coming from and tight reaction shots. They throw in missteps to show how half the people driving these cars are not exactly experts, and make sure things get a little less comfortable when one car gets separated from the convoy. The makeshift armor probably proves far more effective in the movie than it would in real life, but the tension is that much higher because what the audience sees is not the typical huge numbers of misses around the occasional broken window, but things getting shredded because when this many people fire this many bullets, a fair amount are going to find their mark. It's a terrific sequence, and Ryoo takes the time to make sure that the audience can't entirely decompress afterward because there are a few plot threads that need some resolution, although it's just enough time that the adrenalin hasn't entirely left a viewer's body.

I described the plot of "Escape from Mogadishu" to a friend and he asked an interesting question - what does North Korea think of movies where North and South Koreans must cooperate to overcome a shared danger (consider "Ashfall" as another recent example), and though I'm really in no position to know, I'm guessing a country that will jail a citizen for using slang from its neighbor's pop culture is against that pop culture showing reconciliation as possible. Which means they miss out; this particular example is slick, occasionally thrilling, and at least worth a watch.

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originally posted: 08/08/21 07:43:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Seung-wan Ryoo

Written by

  Yoon-seok Kim
  In-sung Jo

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