Review: Thrilling ‘Escape from Mogadishu’ one of the best action films of the summer

3 min read

South Korean movie based on a true story of diplomats fleeing from a collapsing Somalia crackles with suspense.

Most American moviegoers probably know very little about the collapse of Somalia into unrest and civil war in the early ‘90s and what they do know, they learned from Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.” Now, they can add South Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan’s thrilling “Escape from Mogadishu” to that very short list.

Based on an actual incident and set against the backdrop of East African geo-politics — in which both North Korea and South Korea were involved in the region for their own selfish ends — “Escape from Mogadishu” is a tense look at how sly political maneuvering, power games and spycraft, when mixed with a disregard for the local citizens among whom they work, can devolve into a political horror movie with those who think they’re in control running for their lives. “Escape from Mogadishu” is “Argo” and the fall of Saigon set on African soil.

In 1990, South Korea wanted desperately to join the UN and, since many of the countries that would have to vote on their admission were in Africa, the country launched a campaign to woo local leaders, including Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The film opens with a group of officials from the South Korean embassy — including Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung, “The Great Battle”) and Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) — on their way to bring a small gift to Barre. On the other side, the North Koreans — such as officials Rim Yong-su (Huh Joon-ho, “Default,” “Kingdom”) and Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan, “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula”) — are trying to thwart South Korea at every turn. In response, the South Koreans accused the North Koreans of selling arms to the rebels.

But as Somalia slid deeper into civil war and anarchy, and both the government, the rebels and ordinary Somalis started to turn on foreigners in general, it became clear that the time was up for the gamesmanship that had served the interest of the two Koreas in the past. There was only one option left for the ambassadors and embassy employees: get out.

That’s the basic narrative drive of the propulsive “Escape from Mogadishu” as both sets of Korean diplomats and their families — cut off from communications and supplies — have to plot how to get out of a country in which a large share of the populace suddenly wants them dead. Do they put aside their differences to help each other or cling to their long-held animosity?

The question makes for an involving and suspenseful action-thriller that Ryoo Seung-wan handles with flair, capably staging big action scenes — like the final, nerve-rattling drive to potential salvation — while not neglecting the human stories at their heart. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood comes knocking on Seung-wan’s door in a big way. (He makes the most of the Moroccan locations and the film’s reported $20 million budget.)

‘Escape from Mogadishu’Rated TV-14

Running time: 121 minutes

Language: In Korean with English subtitles

**** (out of 5)

“Escape from Mogadishu” is told from South Korea’s point of view — the only reference to the U.S. is that we’re told the Americans diplomats packed up and got out of town much earlier — and that’s refreshing in one sense. But that still means the Somalis are reduced to being just a mass of corruption and violence, with few distinguishing characteristics. They might as well be zombies with automatic weapons. Maybe one day we’ll get a movie about this conflict a Somalis viewpoint.

Still, on its own terms, “Escape from Mogadishu” makes for an engrossing, nail-biting Korean history lesson.

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