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Escape (2024) Review

The DMZ, a lethal no man’s land that divides the Korean Peninsula. For South Korea, it’s a first line of defence against an invasion from the North. For North Korea, it’s a last measure to stop its citizen who try to escape from the country. Sergeant Lim Kyu Nam (Lee Je Hoon, Ghost Sweepers, The Front Line) is stationed on the north side of it, but not for much longer. His ten year enlistment is almost up. But he isn’t going home, he’s planned out an escape to the South, where he at least has a chance to live the life he dreams of.

Unfortunately, Dong-hyuk (Hong Xa Bin, So Long, See You Tomorrow, Hopeless) discovers his plans and tries to make his own escape. When he tries to stop him, they both get caught and accused of desertion. The only thing that saves him from execution is the officer sent from the Department of State Security, Major Ri Hyeon Sang (Koo Kyo-Hwan, Escape from Mogadishu, Parasyte: The Grey) knows him from their childhood.

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But even being declared a hero for catching a deserter and being promoted isn’t enough to make him give up on his dreams. Lim Kyu Nam makes his escape, with the humiliated and vengeful Ri Hyeon Sang determined to catch him.

Director Lee Jong-Pil (Samjin Company English Class, One Day Off and writer Kwon Sung Hui (Narco-Saints, The Spy Gone North) have created a tightly wound thriller that starts out as if it’s going to be a straightforward chase film, but then becomes more and more complicated as it goes on as each complication leads to another, drawing in more people who have to be dealt with.

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By the time the final act rolls around, Lim Kyu Nam and Dong-hyuk have nearly been killed by the leader of a group of displaced villagers played by actress/model Esom (Dr. Cheon and Lost Talisman, Warriors of the Dawn) in a cameo role. Then they have to break back into the base they escaped from while being pursued by Ri Hyeon Sang and what seems to be every guard on the border.

While more of a thriller than a full on action film, Escape does have its moments of mayhem, the best of which is a four way fight inside a speeding jeep. A scene featuring a cleverly improvised explosive is another high point. But mostly it’s about building suspense, whether it involves someone bluffing their way out of trouble, or evading a squad of troops in a dark forest. Credit goes to director of photography Kim Sung-an (Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage, The Devil’s Deal) for giving those night scenes an added edge.

There’s also a subplot about Ri Hyeon Sang and the dreams he gave up on to rise up through the ranks in the military. A concert pianist who competed on an international level, he had the opportunity to defect. But rather than risk failure, he stayed in North Korea and chose a more secure path.

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Now, watching his friend fight to chase his dreams, he starts to question his own choices, and what his decision cost him. Not only does it not play out as you might expect, it also raises some interesting questions about his past via another cameo, this one from Song Kang (Sweet Home, When the Devil Calls Your Name).

Overall, Escape is a solid thriller that mixes escalating tension with busts of action and some interesting dramatic underpinning. Anchored by two excellent performances from the leads, it’s one worth checking out.

Escape will be released to theatres in Korea on July 3rd. Well Go USA releases it to North American theatres on July 5th.

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