Review: Escape From Mogadishu

Action movies the world over usually require at least one elaborate chase scene, and no one does it better than Korean filmmakers, regardless of whether the pursuit is vehicular or on foot (you’ve gotta be pretty skilled to navigate those narrow Seoul alleyways). One of the greatest South Korean crime movies ever made is actually called The Chaser, about a dishonest cop on the trail of a serial killer. The cop was played by Kim Yoon-seok, who stars as the South Korean ambassador to Somalia in Ryoo Seung-wan’s ambitious retelling of an incident that took place in the titular capital in 1991, and, yes, the movie ends with one of the best chase scenes you will ever see. 

Up until that point, however, there’s a lot of business to sift through. The historical background is certainly compelling. In 1987, just as the country was about to emerge from its dictatorship, South Korea endeavored to gain membership in the UN, and since the bulk of UN members were in Africa they needed those countries’ votes to make it a reality. That is Ambassador Han Shin-sung’s (Kim) job, which is very important to him since this is his first diplomatic posting and if he fails he can’t hope to climb up the foreign ministry heirarchy. Unfortunately, he’s confounded at almost every step by the North Korean delegation, which is determined to make sure South Korea remains isolated by the rest of the world. One of the ways they do this is by selling arms to Somalia’s rebels and militias and then use those factions to gum of the South Koreans’ plans. When Han tries to explain all this to a high level Somalian functionary he’s mostly ignored, and instead hit on for some substantial bribes. Han’s task is further complicated by government authorities threatening his mission on an almost daily basis. 

Ryoo seems to have a fairly good grasp of the politics involved but he’s not the kind of writer who can present it in a way that always makes sense to the viewer. Escape From Mogadishu is mainly a series of thrilling, expertly executed action set pieces taped together with barely coherent exposition. It’s easy to see his endgame, which is to throw the South and North Korean delegations together against their will once the city is overrun by bloodthirsty rebel forces. When diplomatic immunity means nothing, it’s every embassy for itself—even the North Koreans, who, despite their earlier arming of the rebels can no longer count on being in their good graces when total chaos ensues. While trying to make it to the Chinese embassy through the blood-soaked streets after their compound is destroyed, the North Korean ambassador, Rim Young-su (Huh Joon-ho), and his mission are pinned down outside of the South Korean embassy, which at the moment still has government protection, and beg to be let in. Out of cultural solidarity, Han opens the gate.

As sworn enemies, the conflicts between these two sides write themselves and reach a pitch of ridiculousness in a scene where the KCIA attache Kang (Zo In-sung) and his North Korean counterpart get into a long kung fu dustup after the latter learns that Kang plans to hand the NK delegation over to his bosses as “defectors.” Most of the second half of the film involves the making of a kind of truce between the two sides, which is vital to their mutual survival as the situation in Mogadishu quickly deteriorates. By the time the climactic chase scene occurs, with both delegations driving hellbent through the streets toward sanctuary at the Italian embassy while being pursued by government soldiers, an understanding has been reached, mainly negotiated by Han, who knows his career is probably over for making overtures to the North Koreans, but he’s a humanist first.

As with many Korean films that utilize an international milieu, Escape From Mogadishu suffers from a less-than-earnest attempt at inter-cultural credibility. The Somalis are two-dimensional, and the scenes where English is the form of communication are mostly incomprehensible. But that chase scene…

In Korean and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Escape From Mogadishu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Lotte Entertainment & Dexter Studios & Filmmakers R&K

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