Escape from Mogadishu
South Korea, 2021, 121’, Korean, English, Somali
Directed by: Ryoo Seung-wan
Screenplay: Lee Ki-cheol, Ryoo Seung-wan
Photography (color): Choi Young-hwan
Editing: Lee Gang-hee
Art Direction: Ki Hye-in
Music: Bang Jun-seok
Producers: Kang Hye-jeong, Kim Yong-hwa, Kim Dong-sik
Cast: Kim Yun-seok (Ambassador Han), Zo In-sung (Counselor Kang), Huh Joon-ho (Ambassador Rim), Koo Kyo-hwan (Counselor Tae), Kim So-jin (Kim Myung-hee), Jung Man-sik (Secretary Gong)
Date of First Release in Territory: July 28th, 2021
North and South Korea were engaged in various heated diplomatic struggles during the 20th century, but in the early 1990s, one of the key points of contention involved membership in the United Nations. South Korea wanted desperately to become a UN member, but North Korea objected, arguing that neither country should be admitted until they were re-unified. Ultimately, the issue would be decided by a vote among member nations, which is why South Korea launched an aggressive campaign to open more embassies in Africa, and to lobby for those governments’ support.
Escape from Mogadishu, based on a true story, is set in Somalia in late 1991, when Ambassador Han Shin-sung and his small team at the South Korean embassy are frantically trying to win over the loyalty of the corrupt Siad Barre regime. They make the best of their limited resources, but their bitter rivals in the North Korean embassy, who have been active in Africa for decades, are easily able to anticipate and block their every move.
However one day in December, rebel forces storm the city. As panic spreads, government officials assure the diplomats that order will be restored quickly. But instead, vicious street fighting breaks out and the city is turned into a battleground. As the rebels gain the upper hand, the embassies are in particular danger, as they are seen to be allies of the crumbling regime. Ambassador Han starts making plans to flee the city with his staff, when suddenly he hears shouts from outside the embassy gates. It is the North Korean diplomats, desperate and asking for help.
No other filmmaker in Korea has such instinctive flair for the staging of large-scale spectacle as director Ryoo Seung-wan. In Escape from Mogadishu he is working on a particularly wide canvas, capturing the disintegration of an entire city alongside the tension and drama of the lead characters’ plight. Shot entirely in Morocco in the months before the start of the pandemic, the film feels startlingly realistic and features several astounding sequences that have become famous since its release, in particular a chase scene involving cars with books taped to their outsides in a makeshift attempt at bulletproofing.
Nonetheless, as much visual spectacle as there is on display, the well-drawn characters and excellent ensemble cast are just as likely to leave an impression on audiences. In particular, the actors playing the two ambassadors – Kim Yun-seok as Ambassador Han and Huh Joon-ho as Ambassador Rim – bring a weight and nuance to their roles that anchor the entire film. Popular star Zo In-sung and the up-and-coming actor Koo Kyo-hwan both convincingly portray hot-headed counselors from their respective intelligence services, and even the minor characters among the embassy staff are memorable.
In ordinary times, Escape from Mogadishu might have been assured to sell 10 million tickets or more at the Korean box office. Its blend of spectacle and drama is exactly the mix that local audiences of all ages respond to so strongly. Sadly the pandemic intervened, but even so the 3.6 million tickets sold for this film make it the best selling Korean release of 2021. It was, in many ways, the film of the year.
Ryoo Seung-wan (b. 1973) made his debut with Die Bad (2000), a highly praised compilation of four short films. Over the next two decades, he established himself as a director who brings great energy and creativity to genre cinema. His films have appeared in sidebar sections at Cannes (Crying Fist), Venice (The City of Violence), and Berlin (The Unjust). His more recent films The Berlin File, The Battleship Island and Escape from Mogadishu have raised the bar in terms of blockbuster spectacle, and his 2014 release Veteran ranks as the 5th-best selling Korean film of all time with 13.4 million admissions.
2000 – Die Bad
2002 – No Blood, No Tears
2004 – Arahan
2005 – Crying Fist
2006 – The City of Violence
2008 – Dachimawa Lee
2010 – The Unjust
2013 – The Berlin File
2014 – Veteran
2017 – The Battleship Island
2021 – Escape from Mogadishu