Writer/director Roo Seung Wan delivers a breathtaking film with Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈). The combination of edge of your seat action, tense wartime drama and sincere heart and emotion make for a thrilling and satisfying cinematic experience.
The film is set in Mogadishu, Somalia in the late-1980s/early-1990s as the two Koreas maintain embassies across Africa in order to garner support for admission to the United Nations. As both South Korea and North Korea try to out-maneuver each other for that support, Somalia is on the verge of civil war as a civilian uprising emerges to try and topple the country’s dictator.
As the situation rapidly deteriorates, the two diplomatic missions are stranded and caught in the crossfire. And they find themselves needing to set aside their profound ideological differences in order to work together to escape the chaos and violence.
Though there’s certainly some liberties taken when it comes to exact historical accuracy, Escape to Mogadishu is based on real events and serves as a basic historical portrait of this specific moment in time from the perspective of the two Korean embassies.
The film is a stunning depiction of the conflict between the Somali people as well as the conflict between the two Koreas. The groundwork is laid quite well, if not very succinctly at the start; laying out the state of Somali as well as the positions of both South and North Korea’s embassy workers and their families.
And once that foundation is settled, the film has no trouble quickly kicking into high gear. As the violence rapidly engulfs the capital city, the tension within the Korean embassies rises with it. It is a fight for survival that not only brings to light the tragic effects of war and conflict, but also the very raw emotions any person may feel when faced with such life and death situations.
Well-placed humor helps emphasize the heartfelt sincerity that in turn propels the heart-pounding, edge of your seat action. The film touches upon the very basic feelings of humanity in a way that leaves a lasting impression: fear, desperation, worry, compassion. The emotional connections may feel like a cynical play, but amidst the backdrop of the bloody Somali conflict and the continued division of the Korean peninsula, the emotionally-charged moments are all the more affecting.
The film’s story is accessible enough for an international audience to make the proceedings understandable and relatable. But it also holds extra meaning for a Korean audience and for anyone familiar with the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, the climactic race to potential salvation at the end of the film as well as its closing moments are a one-two punch of adrenaline and bittersweet relief.
Ryoo Seung Wan does an incredible job with the film’s action-heavy sequences, rivaling any Hollywood blockbuster. Explosive and breathtaking, these scenes do their part to support the emotional character moments while still being able to stand out as their own thrilling spectacles. Being able to sprinkle in heart and humor in what are dramatic and heavy moments is a quality that elevates the film in a positive way.
The excellent cast is another shining aspect of the film. Led by veteran actors Kim Yoon Seok and Heo Joon Ho as the South and North Korean ambassadors to Somalia, respectively, the ensemble is able to quickly establish a sort of community that helps to give that much more meaning to the life and death ordeal.
Jo In Sung and Koo Kyo Hwan are the young, charismatic and hot-blooded intelligence officers that both contrast and compliment the measured, diplomatic approach of the veteran actors bringing the ambassadors to life.
And the rest of the strong ensemble helps to raise the stakes while maintaining a focus on character-driven emotion in the midst of bombastic danger.
Escape from Mogadishu has all the makings of a familiar Hollywood war film. But director Roo Seung Wan is able to craft a very Korean presentation of a modern war story. At its most basic, it is a blockbuster-type, explosive action movie. Deeper, it is a story about humanity having to face life and death situations with compassion while coming to terms with their own long-held beliefs and prejudices. Though two hours might not be enough to cover all potential facets of such discussions, Escape to Mogadishu is nonetheless a thrilling, affecting and satisfying cinematic experience.