ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU (2021)
Words by Grace Han
Set in Somalia, but covering themes of Korean unification, rival North and South diplomats find themselves trapped as civil war rages
South Korea’s 2021 Oscar nomination does not feature the peninsula this year. Instead, Ryoo Seung-wan’s blockbuster plays out much further away: in Somalia.
Escape from Mogadishu presents a truly international feature with on-location shoots in Morocco, Somali cultural consultants, and a pan-African cast. So far, its efforts seem to have been rewarded locally. “Mogadishu” swept prizes at the Buil Film Awards, the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, and the Korean Film Producers Association, culminating in a total of 17 so far.
It’s hard not to see why. “Mogadishu” panders to the usual heart-wrenching politics of North and South Korean unification, only this time with war-torn Somalia in the background.
The film takes place between 1989 to 1991. Both Koreas have already set up their embassies in Mogadishu in their bid to enter the United Nations. As usual, they treat the other with a healthy amount of suspicion.
South Korean ambassador Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) accuses the North Koreans of distributing weapons to the rebels, and his North Korean counterpart Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho) coolly deflects misinformation claims. When the civil war suddenly erupts, however, their relationships too take a turn.
With zero telecommunication lines and absent allies on both sides, the two Koreas find themselves in the dilemma of the century. Their only chance of escape is through the North Korean embassy’s defection – or in other words, acting as one Korea.
For a movie that is so deeply entrenched in Korean history, it surprisingly slips in Hollywood-esque undertones as well. Ryoo Seung-wan’s ambitious war re-enactment echoes the dusty war scenes of Black Hawk Down (2001) and the wry situational humor is reminiscent of Argo (2012).
The violence too is on Hollywood levels of spectacular. The camera doesn’t simply gaze, but it seems to be fascinated with Somali death. Rebels like Swama (Andrew Kimani) baldly bleed out in front of the unrelenting camera, and bodies fling themselves under the Koreans’ cars.
The film adopts a documentary-like veneer until it looks upon the child soldiers – all merely pawns to pull the audience’s heartstrings. In “Mogadishu,” the Somalis are both aggravators and victims of the violence the Koreans are subject to. Though not all of them are complicit, they are unapologetically lumped together, made Other, and then deemed integral to the mass chaos. These exaggerated depictions only add insult to injury knowing that none of the actors are Somali themselves.
Unlike these two comparisons though, “Mogadishu” is ultimately its own beast. Compared to the typical peninsular melodrama, Kim Yoon-seok and Heo Joon-ho’s under-the-table diplomacy is tense with restraint. The sob story of separation is expressed not through the usual tears, but instead through furtive glances and subtle nods of acknowledgment. The excess of the Somali civil war on the streets foils the deafening quiet between the two Koreas in the embassy.
All in all, Escape from Mogadishu breathes fresh air into the age-old story of domestic conflict. Ryoo Seung-wan pulls out all stops to recreate the Somali Civil War for production, but he does not merely use it as a playground. Mogadishu mirrors contemporary Korea instead. There is no “good” or “bad” side to civil war, Korean or Somali. There is only pain.