There’s a volatility to Escape from Mogadishu that makes it more of a nail-biter for more than just its thrilling escape story. It’s a political thriller that takes place during the chaotic uprising of citizens in Mogadishu with Korean diplomats caught up in the crossfire. It’d be so easy for such a film to fall into a simplistic pattern of painting either the revolutionary Somalians or the scheming North Koreans as the easy-to-spot antagonists. Thankfully, this film narrowly dashes through that mine-field of simplicity to present a picture that carries both tension and compassion amid a thrilling escape from a violent situation.
It’s 1991 and the year is drawing to a close with a government that is due to be toppled in Somalia. The South Korean diplomats find themselves frustrated trying to negotiate with the Mogadishu government who is highly suspicious of them. The chief South Korean ambassador Sin-seong struggles to make his case when finding himself dealing with dirty tactics. His escort to the President is delayed by rebels paid off by the North Koreans and the South Koreans are then denied an audience for being late. Their issues are further complicated by implications of the rebels in the media, an issue that is the doing of dirty tactics by Dae-jin, the South Korean intelligence officer.
Then the worst happens. A full-scale rebellion breaks out in Mogadishu where the citizens fight back against their oppressive government. Embassies from various nations also come under assault by the people and the North Korean embassy is targeted. Though their embassy is trashed, the North Koreans escape but now have to navigate the dangerous streets with women and children among them. They come to the South Koreans seeking help. That help is questioned and both sides find themselves highly distrustful of each other and for fairly good reasons. However, when they find they can’t stay at the embassy much longer, they must work together to find their way out of the country.
As a South Korean thriller, it’d be easy for the North Koreans to be portrayed as grateful souls in this scenario but the film never goes that vindictive. Rim Yong-su, the North Korean ambassador, is given some dimension to his character. He’s cold and calculative, sure, but also takes note of his people by making tough calls in a highly volatile situation. His fears such as the South Koreans forcing them to defect if they join forces are not entirely unfounded. The arguments that break out over territories and laws are thankfully kept brief enough so that distrust is established and then trust is earned. It’s not a trust that might inspire each side to find peace but enough maturity to work together for mutual survival. I also appreciated how even though the citizenry get carried away with the violence, they are never villainized too much. There’s a sobering moment went the North Koreans are spared but still fearful of the rampant violence. There’s no nationalistic or xenophobic moment where the Koreans openly condemn the people of Mogadishu because they actually had a strong reason to overthrow their government.
While the criticism of international politics is fairly tepid, the action has been cranked up to the heaviest of intensity. There’s gunfire and executions in the street that are gritty and bloody with a lot of wince-worthy moments. There are also plenty of high-intensity stand-offs where characters will stare down each other, often with guns to heads. And then there’s the brilliant climax of the Koreans driving through the streets to a plane out of the country in cars armed with books and sandbags. A fast-paced and wickedly shot chase follows with gunfire abound.
Escape from Mogadishu is about as exciting as one could portray the revolution in Somalia, despite its fast-and-loose play with history. It’s skillfully directed by painting a detailed enough painting to understand the situation while narrowly trying to avoid the route of propaganda. There are as many moments of blood-pumping action as there are down moments of reflection and humor, giving a more human edge to a film where the star scene is when bullet barrage cars full of Koreans. It succeeds about as well as any film could for posing a similar event more or less for a fast-paced escape movie.
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