New York Asian Film Festival Review: Escape from Mogadishu

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

We’ve grown accustomed to a certain type of spectacle propaganda film coming out of East and Southeast Asia in the last 10-15 years. Slowly the ante for such films from China has increased alongside it’s budgets. Films like The Wandering Earth and Operation Red Sea are reminiscent of Reagan-era Hollywood, big brash unadulterated wins for the home (country)team. South Korean Cinema has seemingly taken a different course. With recent Oscar wins for Bong Joon-ho, the international acclaim of Park Chan-wook, and perennial darling Hong Sang-soo the artisans the world best knows the country’s output for couldn’t seem further away from the macho brashness of the Chinese Tentpoles mentioned above. Ryoo Seung-wan, though less publicized than the three mentioned above, is nevertheless making distinctly South Korean films. His latest effort entitled Escape from Mogadishu is a spin on the classic propaganda flick, and therein lies it’s charm.

We begin Escape from Mogadishu with South Korea fighting for recognition at the U.N., which means no continent is as important as Africa. With the most countries per continent in the U.N. out of all the regions in the world. The film quickly settles into Somalia’s Capital, Mogadishu. Where Kim Yoon-seok’s South Korean ambassador is attempting to parlay a meeting with the President of Somalia and request he vote in favor of ratifying the nation to the U.N.. North Korea seemingly has other plans, after running the ambassador and his team off the road, they steal the gifts for the president, and shoot out the vehicle they were driving. Forcing the band of South Koreans to move forward on foot. When they finally arrive, out of breath, they’ve not only missed their meeting by fifteen minutes, but Heo Joon-ho’s North Korean Ambassador is being ushered along the upper halls to meet with the President. 

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Now it would have been easy and crowd pleasing to lean into the idea of North Korea being the villains, and the deeper wells of “Politics by any means necessary.” Instead Writer/Director Ryoo Seung-wan eschews this convention in favor of a story of compassion and teamwork. Eventually Somalia begins to fall to rebels. They are demanding fairness and compassion, things easy to get behind, but they’re asking from behind guns shooting tons of heated lead, something that makes it a bit less easy to get behind. Both the North Koreans and South Koreans are stuck in Mogadishu with seemingly no way out. After an incursion from the aforementioned rebels into the North Korean Embassy, the North Koreans are forced to run for lives, and because the streets are filled with gun-toting rebels they won’t last long. After much deliberation they beg the South Koreans to hide in their embassy, after equal deliberation by the South Koreans they agree to allow them sanctuary inside their walls. The deciding factor seems to be the volume of women and children accompanying the men.

Now a lot of different things happen after this point in the film. Personal security for the South Korean Embassy is lost, members from both Korea’s fight, doors are affixed to cars for armor, there’s a lengthy car shootout sequence, and legions of CG dogs roam the streets. What I’m trying to say is it gets messy. But there’s a heart underneath the film, where rather than point the finger and attack North Korea Ryoo opts instead to show grace, kindness, and compassion. This seemingly by the book spectacle propaganda film is swapped instead for a larger than life film of individual reconciliation, trust, and understanding. It’s not a great film for the conventional reasons we’ve come to expect from cinema, it’s a mindful engagement from a nation that is neighbors and not too distant cousins with one of the saddest totalitarian regimes committing human rights atrocities today. And instead of condemning them, Ryoo holds out his hand.

Escape from Mogadishu Trailer

Escape from Mogadishu is screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival and is now available in limited theatrical release with more locations to follow.

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