Movie Review: ‘Escape from Mogadishu’: The South Korean Argo
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Writer: Ki-cheol Lee, Seung-wan Ryoo
Stars: Kim Yoon-seok, In-sung Jo
Synopsis: In 1991 war-torn Somalia the personnel and the families of both the South Korean and the North Korean embassies have the same goal: to escape from Mogadishu.
Two years ago, South Korea made a statement of intent towards silver screen domination with Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. Rightly heralded as a masterpiece, Parasite walked away with a plethora of awards and even became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The Oscar entry for South Korea this year is no Parasite, to be sure, but what Escape From Mogadishu proves is that the South Korean movie industry is vast and fully capable of competing with the best Hollywood has to offer.
Based on the incredible true story of a daring Argo-esque escape back in 1991, Escape From Mogadishu centers on diplomats from North and South Korea who have arrived in Somalia to convince the Somali dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, to vote for their entry into the United Nations. While both sides of Korea try to navigate each other, a coup on Barre’s leadership erupts, descending the city of Mogadishu into violent anarchy and martial law. With their lives at stake, both diplomats of North and South Korea have no choice but to work together to ensure their survival. But can they really trust each other long enough to stay alive?
Part political thriller and part action-adventure, Escape From Mogadishu feels like a strange nomination for the Academy Awards. Traditionally, countries seldom submit this kind of fare to the International Feature. While it’s no surprise that Escape From Mogadishu didn’t make the shortlist, that it was submitted at all says a lot for the quality of the movie itself. Director Seung-wan Ryoo manages to deftly handle the tonal transition between the nervy political elements early on to the all-out action sequences which come later, also imbuing the movie with a vein of humor running throughout, something which you might not imagine in a movie about a violent dictator and the bloodbath his removal creates.
Ryoo’s take on the bitter enmity between North and South Korea is highlighted by the fact that they are both in a foreign country with its own troubles, troubles which put the Korean issues in perspective. With a similar concept to Park Chan-wook’s classic JSA: Joint Security Area, Ryoo builds upon the tension until the explosive revelation of impending civil war. Suddenly, the stakes change and both sides must work together. Although the South Koreans are the center of the story, the North Koreans are not painted as simply villains. A recent law passed in South Korea states that no North Koreans may be portrayed as heroes, which means Ryoo must be cautious about representation, nevertheless he manages to create a dichotomy whereupon both sides are simply acting in the interest of their respective governments, diplomats simply doing their jobs. The message is clearly one of unity. For us to survive, we need to work together, regardless of our history.
There are some expertly done action sequences, involving car chases from both Koreas, and the cinematography makes use of the Moroccan background which stands in for Mogadishu itself. The night sequences are stark, lit by torchlight, and tinged with a wariness that lends itself well to the situation.
Although packaged and presented as an action movie, Escape From Mogadishu works well in its more quiet moments, and carries its message of unity amid turmoil, and the need to put down nationalist flags and identify with one another on a deeper level.
Grade – B