Writers: Ki-cheol Lee and Seung-wan Ryu
Director: Seung-wan Ryu
Escape from Mogadishu, like the Oscar-winning Argo, is a true-life story of bureaucrats and diplomats caught up in an unexpected violent uprising and forced to find ways of escaping from embassies in which they have become trapped. However, while Argo served also as a love-letter to/ in-joke about, movies, Escape from Mogadishu is a morally ambiguous story of a community descending into chaos.
In 1991 diplomats and intelligence officers from the rival North and South Korean embassies try to persuade Barre’s Somali Democratic Republic government to support their application to be admitted to the United Nations. As the government is corrupt these efforts amount to bribes and the rival diplomats are forced to fight dirty. The South Korean officials arrange for gifts from their rivals to be stolen by rebel forces while the Northern diplomats leak to the press reports their counterparts have been providing arms to the rebels. All efforts become pointless when Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia in which the embassies are based, is taken by rebel forces who perceive anyone sympathetic to the government as fair game. The embassy workers are forced to put aside their political differences if they are to escape with their lives.
Director Seung-wan Ryu (who wrote the script with Ki-cheol Lee) sets a chaotic atmosphere of a society on the edge of disaster. Although the film is full of humour, it is of a dark, unsettling nature often followed by moments of terror making the mood uneasy and discordant. The escapees encounter a trio of tittering schoolboys conscripted into the rebel forces and carrying rifles who, absurdly, start playing ‘war’ – making rat-a-tat noises with their mouths and demanding the escapees ‘play dead’. Suddenly the game gets real when the children actually open fire.
The tension at the film’s climax, in which a convoy of escapees run a gauntlet of gunfire, gains an absurd edge as their cars been made ‘bullet-proof’ with makeshift armour comprising books, doors and sandbags sellotaped to their exteriors. In the style of Apocalypse Now a rebel soldier goes into battle providing his own soundtrack- not Wagner blasting from helicopters but a massive beatbox strapped to his back.
Seung-wan Ryu subverts elements of the film which might conform to genre standards. There is potential for a mismatched ‘buddy movie’ relationship between the South Korean intelligence officer and the diplomat. The former, Kang Dae-jin, is played by Jo In-sung in classic ‘spy’ mode- slender, handsome, well-dressed and able to handle a fist fight. Han Sin-seong, the diplomat played by Kim Yoon-seok is world-weary, heavier and less well-groomed. Yet in moments of crisis Kang Dae-jin becomes so anxious he blows his suave cool and reverts to his native tongue having to ask passers-by to translate.
Seung-wan Ryu illustrates the corrosive impact of the morally compromised behaviour of the characters. Even when the officials start working together the level of mistrust is so intense the refugees refuse to eat unless their benefactors share the food fearing it is poisoned. This allows for a genuinely redemptive ending with political differences being put aside to give everyone a chance of reaching safety.
Typical of a film that refuses to take easy options the conclusion is bittersweet- the officials having to conceal their co-operation from their superiors and continue to feign enmity. Seung-wan Ryu maintains the tension to the closing moments with lingering shots of the characters leading to anxious speculation someone might break ranks and admit their friendship.
Although Escape from Mogadishu contains nail-biting action scenes and is relentlessly tense the refusal to be limited by the conventions of the action movie genre makes the film even more memorable.
Signature Entertainment presents Escape from Mogadishu in Cinemas and on Digital Platforms 25th March.