Director/co-writer Ryoo Seung-wan’s 16th film and South Korea’s submission for the 94th Academy Awards, Escape from Mogadishu, is a reconstruction of events during the Somali Civil War (currently still on-going). It’s a film which didn’t make the shortlist of nominees and, frankly, it’s unsurprising. Members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences tend to favor a certain type of film for their nominees, something a tad esoteric like Iceland’s Lamb or a slow burn like Japan’s Drive My Car. Ryoo’s Escape from Mogadishu is a high-wire act, balancing humor and drama, action and suspense, and the luxury of old grudges and the horror of civil war. This is the kind of film that would have a theater laughing one minute and utterly silent the next, so great does the tonal pendulum swing, and without any unnatural jarring. Instead, Ryoo’s film sucks you straight into its harrowing and emotional end.
The film begins in 1990, three years after the South Korean government had sent diplomats to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in the Banaadir region of Africa, with the goal of developing relationships so as to earn support to join the United Nations. While South Korean representatives battle against their North Korean counterparts to earn favor with President Barre, neither side pays much attention to the growing rebel forces and their distrust of the government. That is, until a civilian-led revolt begins and slowly both sides lose supplies and governmental support from Barre’s forces and their own respective countries. Running out of time, the South and North Korean diplomats work together to find a way to escape from Mogadishu and get home.
The opening of Mogadishu includes a rather serious set of texts laying the groundwork for what’s to come, only to be followed up with an introduction of the South Korean diplomats struggling to take a photo at a local school. Tonally, it’s in opposition: learning about an incoming civil war and then seeing people going about their daily lives with some silly incidents. But life is fully of silly incidents — ripping of jackets as we rush to catch up, running great distances in order to not miss an appointment, constantly finding yourself out-paced by your competition — that color our lives, even as the unexpected looms in the background. Credit to Ryoo for keeping the threat of civil war within view of the audience, something which other directors might refrain from doing to maintain focus solely on the main characters. Instead, Ryoo’s approach to the narrative sustains the constant reminder that both sets of diplomats are not in their home country, that they are guests, and that their rivalry is petty in the larger scope of local strife. By keeping the local politics front and center for the audience, we are less shocked when civil war breaks out, whereas it appears as a total surprise for the characters, offering moments of real clarity as they see what war amongst a people look like. The featurettes imply that the script from Ryoo and Lee Ki-cheol (Assasination) is a compilation of perspectives and not a strict adaptation.
Watching Mogadishu, I couldn’t help but think of Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), recently restored by Arrow Video. This suspense thriller centers on an incident involving the border guards at a North Korea/South Korea bridge. The entire film is a balancing act of global politics and interpersonal drama, leaving the audience with a gut punch of an ending. This film is based on the novel DMZ, a work of fiction, whereas Mogadishu is inspired by real world events and, yet, the result is nearly identical. Interestingly, South Korea recently passed amendments to its National Security Law (NSL) which prohibit any material which “induces others to join an ‘anti-government organization’.” Even before this new amendment, the NSL required the script, by law, not to present the North Korean delegation acting in any way heroic. In the hands of an American director (and without this law binding artistic approach), audiences would likely see the film focus on the North Koreans with them making great sweeping statements and having scenes showcasing their grandeur. The audience would see the same from the South Koreans, even as they are the clear central protagonists of the film. Instead, not only does Ryoo refrain from centering the North Koreans, there’s a specific choice to not have the South Koreans held up as lofty outside of presentation of humanity in times of crisis. This enables the film to carry a universal message of unity versus a specific one regarding the two warring countries. Because of this, Mogadishu ends with a solemnness instead of revelry, encouraging quiet contemplation after enduring a fight for their lives.
In terms of extending the cinematic experience, the bonus features included are quite brief, totaling close to 10 minutes, not including three trailers and three previews for other Well Go USA releases. The production-centric featurettes enable the audience to learn about the production in terms of the kind of film Ryoo wanted to create, how they went about recreating Mogadishu in Essaouira, Morocco, and how the actors felt about working together. Each one is brief, but you get to hear a lot from the cast, imbuing the featurettes with less of a marketing-feel and more an authentic disclosure. The two “Making of” featurettes are uneven in content as the first, “Car Chase,” is not even a minute long and offers no discussion of how they executed the car chase sequence which is truly impressive in design and execution. The sequence is just long enough to make you feel terror for the characters involved, but never goes so far as to feel drawn out for the sake of having an action sequence. Instead, the bulk of the insider information comes in the form of a brief interview with military consultant Tae Sang-ho. Tae’s credentials are placed at the top of the featurette as he is used in place of the film’s sources (mostly ex-diplomats from the period of the film) to explain the accuracy of the production design, weapons, and presentation of the politics. As interesting as it is, personally, I would’ve preferred more time with the crew, learning how they accomplished the stunt sequences and transforming Essaouira into Mogadishu than hearing from Tae.
Ever since The Cine-Men co-host Darryl Mansel brought up Escape from Mogadishu in Episode 58, I’ve been curious to check the film out. He spoke highly of it during the discussion and I’ve been keen to check it out since. Truly, it’s a highlight picture of 2021, and it being on home video now means that it’s more easily accessible for those who either (a) didn’t feel comfortable checking it out when it was in theaters anywhere or (b) want to be able to revisit it as they please. This is certainly a film I didn’t expect to result in tears, having me contemplate how humanity can really be beautiful sometimes when it opts to set aside differences and remembers that we’re really all one people. That it offers hope and humor amid a dark period (one that continues in both Somalia and Korea to this day), merely makes the message more powerful.
Escape from Mogadishu Special Features:
- Production Documentaries
- Motive (1:53)
- Mogadishu (1:44)
- Actors (2:05)
- Making of
- Car Chase (0:52)
- Interview: Military Consultant (2:59)
- Teasers (0:34)
- Trailer 1 (1:37)
- Trailer 2 (1:58)
Available on digital October 19th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 18th, 2022.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Escape from Mogadishu website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.