When you hear the phrase “escape from Mogadishu”, the events chronicled in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down are probably what comes to mind. But two years before that the Somali capital was the scene of another daring escape. One where rival North and South Korean diplomats had to work together to flee the war torn city. The publicity for the new Korean film Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈) makes the comparison with the American blockbuster, but they’re actually very different films.
As the diplomats from both North and South Korea vie for the support of the Somali government and their vote for their country’s admission to the UN a bloody civil war wages outside of the city. North Korean ambassador Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, The Cleansing Hour) seems to have his rivals Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok, Chaser, The Yellow Sea), Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung, Bakugan: Battle Force, The Great Battle) and Gong Soo-cheol (Jeong Man-sik, The Swordsman, Rampant) at a major disadvantage.
That is until rebel forces enter the city and destroy the North Korean embassy. With nowhere else to go they turn up at their rival’s door and are, reluctantly, given shelter. It soon becomes clear however that neither side can expect any help from their governments. If they want to get out alive they’ll have to make their own arrangements.
Much of Escape from Mogadishu’s first half hour is devoted to setting up the situation and the rivalry between the two groups of diplomats. Director Ryoo Seung-wan (The City of Violence, The Berlin File) manages to make what could have been a rather dry history lesson interesting and kept me engaged until the uprising began.
While it doesn’t have the large scale action scenes that one might expect from a film like this, Escape from Mogadishu does a good job of recreating the chaos and violence that engulfed the city even before the rebels entered it. Its Moroccan locations do a good job standing in for Somalia which, unsurprisingly, is still too dangerous to film in.
The North Koreans’ trek across a city illuminated only by burning fires is a particularly tense sequence and helps humanize characters we’d otherwise be less likely to care about. And while the plot revolves around the two sides working together it doesn’t make the mistake of portraying it as some miracle of harmony. Neither side fully trusts the other, especially the two intelligence officers Kang Dae-jin and Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan, Peninsula). But with nobody else offering to help they have no choice but to make the uneasy alliance work long enough to find a way out.
The cast do a good job playing off of each other and building the suspense through the middle of the film as the various conflicts between the characters build as well as the threat from outside. It sets up Escape from Mogadishu’s one big action set piece, a wild car chase through city streets full of armed threats belonging to both the government and the rebels. Then a standoff that threatens to stop them mere feet away from safety.
Come expecting a suspense film rather than an action film and Escape from Mogadishu should satisfy you. At just over two hours long it probably could have been trimmed a little, but overall it’s a solid film that avoids both unrealistic sentimentality for a united Korea or unnecessarily demonizing or lionizing either side. They’re just ordinary people trying to survive extraordinary events.
Escape from Mogadishu was released on July 28th in its native country. It will have its North American premiere on August 6th, as the opening film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. Well Go USA will also release it to theaters that day. You can check their website and Facebook page for more details.