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Mogadishu 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Stars: Kim Yoon-seok, In-Sung Jo, Joon-ho Huh
Set during a rarely utilised part of Korean history in cinematic terms, Escape from Mogadishu is the latest blockbuster from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Taking place across 1990 and 1991, it was a point in time when South Korea was only a couple of years into being a democracy, and North Korea was yet to descend into the famine that ravaged its population just a few years later. During the early 90’s both the South and the North had ambitions of joining the United Nations, and thanks to their connections with the African region and its influence in the UN at the time, both sides of the Korean peninsula were looking to curry favour with Somalian President Siad Barre. In reality both the South and the North would be admitted into the UN in September 1991, by which point Somalia had descended into a full-on Civil War which continues to this day.
Seung-wan’s latest chooses to focus on the days leading up to and immediately after the unrest that quickly escalated into all out war, which saw several foreign embassy staff scrambling to escape from the violent rebels, who targeted the embassies perceiving them to be aligned with Barre’s government. On the South Korean side we have Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser, The Priests) as the Ambassador and Jo In-sung (A Dirty Carnival, The Great Battle) as counsellor. Their North Korean counterparts are played by Heo Joon-ho (White Badge, Volcano High) and Koo Kyo-hwan (Peninsula, Kingdom: Ashin of the North).
As a director Escape from Mogadishu shows Seung-wan’s further departure from the gritty contemporary action thrillers which he made his name on like No Blood, No Tears and Veteran. While he’s dealt with the themes of South and North Korean conflict before in The Berlin File, his latest owes more to the bombast of The Battleship Island, his production immediately prior to Escape from Mogadishu, than his European set outing. Indeed if anything if feels like Seung-wan has been indulging in gratuitous Chinese military blockbusters like Operation Red Sea and Wolf Warrior 2, and wracked his brain for a time in Korean history that a similar action aesthetic could be wrapped around. To its credit, at least Escape from Mogadishu acknowledges Africa as a continent containing several different countries and cultures, as opposed to its Chinese counterparts like Vanguard.
However it’s difficult to get away from the fact that the background to which Escape from Mogadishu plays out against is more interesting to read about than to actually watch. We spend most of the initial third watching the South and North delegations subtly manoeuvre to sabotage each other so that (the unseen) President Barre is more likely to favour one side over the other, and as the plots primary driver it’s as compelling as it sounds, despite being grounded in real events. Yun-seok is his usual reliable self, here clocking in his first performance after his directorial debut, 2019’s underseen Another Child. Regardless of how solid his acting is, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that his character is a dull one, only saved by Yun-seok’s screen presence and natural charisma.
Jarringly In-sung often seems to be acting in a different movie entirely, hamming it up in every scene he’s in with a demeanour usually reserved in Korean cinema for frazzled detective characters. When he’s not busting our random kicks at the airport and being called Bruce Lee by taxi drivers, he’s pointing guns at his own head and generally making a fuss that never quite gels with the situation he finds himself in. I’ve always though of In-sung as a kind of Korean version of Aaron Kwok (just minus the successful pop career), in that they’re both capable of putting in solid performances, but they need the right director to draw it out of them. Seung-wan fails to reign him in here, and as a result we get a lot of yelling and talking through gritted teeth, but not much substance in terms of establishing who his character actually is.
It comes as a relief then when fighting does eventually break out, and the plot pivots away from pollical manoeuvring to become a survival narrative as the streets turn to chaos. The Somali Civil War hasn’t been covered in cinema much, and as a result any productions that use the war as a setting are inevitably going to draw comparisons to each other. It’s been 20 years since Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down hit cinema screens, and like Scott’s production here Morocco is once more doubling for Somalia. Also like Scott’s production, the Somalian’s are mostly represented as either corrupt officials, one-dimensional villains, child soldiers, or cannon fodder. At least here though there’s more of a legitimate excuse for the stereotyped casting, as the most interesting element about Escape from Mogadishu sees both the North and South Koreans cohabitating in the South Korean embassy, after the North Korean embassy get ransacked.
The setup allows for the 2nd hour of the 2-hour runtime to be significantly more entertaining than the first. The concept of sworn enemies living under the same roof having to grapple with being able to trust each other, as well as worry about an indiscriminate enemy bursting down the door at any moment, is used well. It also gives us a classic Ryoo Seung-wan fight scene, as tensions boil over between In-sung and Koo Kyo-hwan resulting in them exchanging blows. It’s brief, however for a few seconds the scene serves as a reminder of just how well Seung-wan knows how to construct an effective fight. After some prerequisite bonding over a meal, eventually both sides agree to work together to form an escape plan, with the South leveraging its western allies, and the North doing the same with its Communist counterparts.
All of this builds up to everyone cramming into a handful of vehicles to form a kind of ramshackle motorcade to get to safety, which makes up the finale. Of course, things don’t go smoothly, and they soon find themselves having to deal with both heavily armed government troops in pursuit as well as Molotov cocktail wielding rebels that litter the streets. It’s an entertaining sequence, and contains one stellar piece of camerawork that sees the shot pass through each of the vehicles as they furiously reverse while getting showered in a hail of bullets. It’s obviously CGI assisted, but it’s the kind of CGI I’m an advocate for in action cinema, where technology is used to innovate in a way which wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago, rather than using CGI to replace something that would have once been done for real (CGI explosions, I’m looking at you).
It’s a shame then, that despite this we still have to suffer the sight of a CGI dog in one scene. I mean, how hard would it have been to get a trained dog to do the scene!? I guess we can’t have everything. Ultimately Escape from Mogadishu feels like it would be a more suitable companion piece to The Spy Gone North rather than the obvious Black Hawk Down. The Somali Civil War may provide the backdrop, but in the end Seung-wan seems more intent of crafting a tale of South and North relations, and the tragedy of a divided Korea. It may be a theme which has been explored countless times before over the 60+ years since the Korean War finished with an armistice in 1953, but it continues to be one that provides fruitful ground for storytelling.
The main issue with Escape from Mogadishu is that it takes a long time for it to decide on what it wants to be, and while it does it isn’t all that engaging. Even once it decides on its path, it’s more the circumstance which is compelling rather than the characters, who don’t feel that interesting when we first meet them, and don’t feel any more interesting once the credits roll. Much like The Battleship Island, Seung-wan seems to be enjoying the bigger budgets and can still bring in a stellar cast, but it feels like it’s at the cost of the characterisation which defined much of his pre-2015 output. Escape from Mogadishu isn’t a bad movie, but from a director who’s as distinctive as Ryoo Seung-wan, it can’t help but feel a little too generic.