Escape From Mogadishu
In the early 1990’s, both sides of the Korean peninsula campaign across the world to get recognition for their respective bids to join the UN. In Somalia, the southern delegation is led by perpetually put-upon Ambassador Han Sin-Seong (Kim Yoon-seok) while the North is led by the stoic Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho). Both sides attempt to one-up and sabotage the other as they court the Somali government, but when a growing rebellion creates chaos on the streets of Mogadishu, the staff and security of both embassies find themselves unexpectedly thrown together in a battle for survival. I caught a showing of Escape From Mogadishu at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Loosely based on a true story – director Ryoo Seung-wan condenses the timeline and adds a veritable heap load of action drama to events – Escape From Mogadishu is always bound to draw the eye with its premise, though it is far from the first film to come out of the Korean movie industry with reconciliation between either side of the 38th parallel at its heart. The first concern any viewer is bound to have is that they will be experiencing a propaganda piece, a film meant to be a bolster to reunification efforts while presenting South Korean characters as the heroic saviours of their distressed and desperate North Korean cousins. It would be an easy trap to fall into it. But Escape From Mogadishu doesn’t go that way. Its depictions of the events in question showcases a real “There but for the grace of God” sentiment, with the North Koreans merely the beneficiaries of bad luck the South Koreans just about managed to avoid: with the film at pains to emphasise the parallels (ha) between the two sides – the Ambassadors, their intelligence agents, even their wives are not all that different from each other – it’s less about one set of protagonists aiding a helpless enemy and just a group of peoples realising that the designations of “North” and “South” aren’t going to mean much if they get gunned down by an AK-wielding child soldier who thinks they’re all Chinese.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. While a tad on the long side, Escape From Mogadishu tells a very engaging story, and succeeds admirably through its characterisation of what could be dour stereotypes. Han starts off as almost a comedy character, the Ambassador in the arse-end of nowhere given an impossible job, with a slapstick assistant described as “more bureaucrat than man”. His North Korean counterparty initially appears to be some kind of Bond villain with his grey uniform, sneer of contempt and menacing underling (an excellent Koo Kyo-hwan), their much lengthier presence in Africa giving them every advantage in this calculated political game. There’s a KCIA agent (Jo In-sung) who seems tailor-made to be an action hero ala Ben Affleck in Argo (a film that certainly seems to have been something of an inspiration), a fretting wife and in the first act it all actually comes close to dull territory as both embassies go out of their way to mess with the other in increasingly petty ways. In different hands this material could have been comedy gold.
But then disaster strikes and things become a bit different. Han turns out to be a very bent down diplomatic veteran realising that all of his dreams are going up in smoke, and wondering if he will ever even see his daughter again; Rin has to weigh political (his Pyongyang masters who will probably purge him if he gets too friendly with the South Koreans), familial (his young children whose mother shields their eyes from looking at Seoul Olympic memorabilia) and personal (he’s diabetic, and raiders have made off with his insulin) matters. The two come to realise that the pressures of this diplomatic game make them more similar than different, and the depth of characterisation extends to others too, not least that KCIA agent, whose initial dreams of landing the coup of an entire North Korean embassy defecting turn to a more grounded realisation of human beings who need help.
Things turn fairly breathless by the halfway point, as both sets of staff and families try to survive, and try to find a way out. It’s here that Ryoo perhaps overeggs the real story a bit, and the sight of a convoy of cars, with taped books in place of bulletproof armour, careening through the streets of Mogadishu as they dodge gunfire from rebels and soldiers, is a bit much. But it’s undoubtedly entertaining, and the film has perhaps earned this bit of spectacle after 90+ minutes of taut political tension-making. Not that it’s a boring experience – there is room for some occasional sardonic commentary on the plight of such embassies (the South Koreans are so inept at the job that part of their package of gifts for a Muslim dictator is a bottle of booze), and a brief foray into the realm of martial arts in one scene helps to lighten things up – and once things really get going Escape From Mogadishu maintains an engaging pace.
The film does a great job with its depiction of Mogadishu in those awful final days of 1990 and early days of 1991, when the world turned upside down. While hardly a functioning state – the first act takes us through the rubbish dumps that constitute peoples homes, and the government is depicted as corrupt from top to bottom – when violence takes over the city it becomes a veritable hellscape of gunfire, children with guns who don’t really even know what they are carrying, fires, packs of dogs roaming the streets eating corpses and just a sense that there is no safety anywhere at anytime. Somali characters are bound to be a little under-developed, though the film makes at least some time for a general political message for them of wanting interfering foreigners out of their country. But the feeling of chaos, of a place that would be post-apocalyptic without the needed context, is created so vividly that it is easy to get lost in. A sequence where the North Korean embassy staff and their families must skulk through violence-ridden streets, and then debate whether to even ask the South Koreans for assistance – not a straightforward case of humble pie eating, as one character points out such an act would make even their children traitors – is a spectacular set-piece. Those seeking a more subtle examination of the Somali experience at the beginning of the 1990s will not find it here, but with the greatest of respect this is not a Somali story.
Ryoo’s cast do a good job with the material, the film giving them a showcase that I suspect will be experienced worldwide before its primary distrivution is concluded. Kim and Heo are great as the respective ambassadors, their weariness tangible as things get worse and worse, and Koo and Jo as the respective security guys with more militant outlooks are great too, but there isn’t really a bad showing from the larger set of principals either. Standouts include Jung Man-sik as the clownish embassy assistant and Peter Kawa as a menacing member of the Somali police who has recurring encounters with the Koreans, two good representations for the divergent poles that the film jumps between.
They bring life to a script that is excellently translated, and covers themes related to survival, reconciliation, fake news and misinformation. On the last two scores is where Escape From Mogadishu finds its most modern relevance: the chaos of the Somali Civil War is one marked by rumour and lies spreading faster than fact, with a fog of ignorance as big a player in bad choices as anything else: hence the horror of the North Korean embassy staff and family seeking shelter from their Chinese counterparts, only to find the building looted and on fire. The usually cool-as-ice KCIA agent loses that cool decisively when he buts heads with his North Korean counterpart, and it’s not just because of his smarmy smile. A later scene where the DPRK people hesitate to eat food freely offered by the South Koreans, fearful of it being poisoned, is similarly affecting (as is the following moment of everyone eating quickly and nosily, reduced from their ideological components to the reality of biological needs). These two groups need to work and live together in the short run, but are fully aware of the long term potential for what they are doing: the film does well to craft some additional tension out of this in the final moments, where a different kind of subterfuge is utilised for an unlikely victory.
The film is visually very accomplished: you can tell some serious funding has been put behind it. Different parts of Morocco prove an able substitute for Mogadishu, whose sun-baked buildings, masses of people and evident signs of poverty are very well-realised., But it’s when the rebellion start and order breaks down that Ryoo really brings his A-game. The sequence where the North Korean embassy staff and family sneak across the city trying to find refuge is absolutely incredible in terms of the way the dark chaos of that event is captured: the dim streets, the bands of roving gunmen in the distance, the random fires, the dogs. Through this environment that seems like something more akin to Mad Max, we track this band of desperate people, with some faux one-shotters really placing you in among them. That’s just one example of the general excellence of Escape From Mogadishu on a visual front, with the film showcasing an understanding of camerawork being critical to the creation of tension. It is at once claustrophobic and terrifyingly expansive, in the way that the darkness of Somalia’s nights seems to be closing in even in the vastness of an entire city tearing itself apart. In that last regard a reliance on natural light for night-time scenes, Kubrickian in its manner for most of the film’s middle section, also stands out. Some CGI shots of dog packs roaming the Mogadishu streets are glaringly obvious in their fakery, but that’s as bad a word as I can say.
And it is decent on the audio front too. Bang Jun-seok’s score manages to mix in the standard action/thriller themes with music of a distinctly African origin, and it proves a suitable accompaniment. I also want to give what is, for me, some rare credit on the audio mixing front, with Escape From Mogadishu a film that manages to do a truly excellent job capturing the power that is the sound of gunfire: the AK-47’s that get let off here, at various stages of the narrative, really do sound very impressive, impressive enough to make that kind of unique impression. Too often films tend to downplay the nature of that sound, probably because it will be deemed a distraction. But Ryoo wants you focused on that sound, and on what it means: it’s truly an exceptional part of the film, that should be an inspiration to others.
It may be, due to personal circumstances, that Escape From Mogadishu turns out to be the only film that I get to see at DIFF this year, which will be a regret. But if that does come to pass, I will at least have the benefit of my lone experience being a really good film, its quality unexpected. This is no bland addendum to Black Hawk Down, it is its own story, excellently told, with strong work from cast and from the production crew. At a time when warfare has again become a part of the daily news cycle, and distrust, misinformation and fear appear to be the dominant part of the public discourse, it is as good a film as any to act as both a riposte, and as a demonstration of the depth of humanity possible in the most extreme of circumstances. We could all do with more of that. While no Parasite, Ryoo’s film is another jewel in the crown of recent Korean cinema, and comes highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lotte Entertainment).