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Escape from Mogadishu is in UK cinemas now. 

Escape from Mogadishu ends with a memorable slam-bang action set-piece, but begins with a diplomatic history lesson. In the late 1980s, both South and North Korea had observer status at but not full membership of the United Nations. They each attempted to curry favour with certain African states who might sponsor their application for full UN recognition, explaining why our story unfolds in Somalia. Cinema audiences outside South Korea would hardly be expected to be familiar with this context, and it lends a certain freshness to the opening passages of Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest spectacular offering, which recreates the devastation of the Somalian civil war on an expansive scale on Moroccan locations.

There’s a wry comic tone as inexperienced South Korean ambassador Han finds his operation outflanked by his opposite number, ambassador Rim. While the Seoul crew come off as laughably hapless, we’re to take it that the Pyongyang team are ruthless and not to be trusted – pretty much what you might expect from a blockbuster production aimed at South Korean multiplexes.

It’s worth noting that South Korea’s National Security Act makes the positive portrayal of the Pyongyang regime punishable by law, though that hasn’t stopped the country’s film-makers from creating various dramatic scenarios for the two sides to be in the same room together. Ryoo himself delivered The Berlin File (2013), in which spies from the South momentarily come to the assistance of a Northern agent about to be eliminated by his own side in the German capital. That was pure fiction; this time, events on-screen are actually based in fact, drawn from the memoirs of Kang Shin-sung, Seoul’s former ambassador to Somalia, who has, however, criticised the film in the Korea Herald for underplaying the humanitarian imperatives behind his offer of assistance to the stricken North Korean diplomats.

For reasons of dramatic construction, it’s understandable that Ryoo chose instead to sustain the mistrust between ideological rivals. In the end, while it’s all still couched in an action-movie setting, the film adeptly captures the contradictions in Southern attitudes to the North: on the one hand, a sentimental sense of connection reaches towards closer ties, but on the other, realpolitik rationalism is only too aware of the current yawning gap between liberal democracy and dynastic totalitarian opponent.

These moments will play with greater intensity for a South Korean audience, but as with previous Ryoo offerings – including the textbook cop movie Veteran (2015) and the World War II prison-escape showstopper The Battleship Island (2017) – the skill with which the whole thing is mounted suggests a filmmaker who has the action-flick chops to be working with the Hollywood A-list but is still drawn to stories with a strongly Korean element at their core.

At a time when streaming hits like Netflix’s Squid Game and Hellbound have readily digestible genre-based material reaching a wider audience than ever before, and after Parasite broke out of the international arthouse ghetto by fusing local relevance and international resonance, it seems that Ryoo’s films continue to fall between two stools – too ‘foreign’ for international multiplexes, too slam-bang to sit comfortably with a traditional arthouse audience. On the latter score, Ryoo’s portrayal of the Somalis is somewhat lacking: the civil conflict gets only a cursory explanation, the depiction of child soldiers is used as a pure scare tactic, and bodies in the streets are as much unfortunate obstacles for the Korean escape route as human beings to be mourned.

Heo Joon-ho as Rim in Escape from Mogadishu (2021)
Heo Joon-ho as Rim in Escape from Mogadishu (2021)
© Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

Still, it’s standard operational procedure for Hollywood action films not to linger over subsidiary casualties, so Ryoo is by no means a sole offender. And he does manage to make the bullet-spraying highlights thrillingly persuasive, especially the grand finale, in which Mercedes saloons and a Volvo estate are given a protective armour of duct-taped library books and set off to run the gauntlet of trigger-happy government soldiers and unleashed rebel militia. It’s a different, perhaps more documentary-inspired take on the sheer unhinged delirium observed in the final-reel mass escape scene in The Battleship Island (where a classic Ennio Morricone music cue ups the ante even further); but as the sequence plays out here, through bombed-out street after bombed-out street, it’s a milestone in production expertise. To top it all, Ryoo’s pièce de résistance, swooping the camera in a line through the shattered front and rear windscreens of fugitive moving vehicles, one after another in a bravura apparent single take, is a genuine jaw-dropper.

 

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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