Writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu is a North / South Korea story set against the backdrop of the Somali Civil War. It’s 1991, and the Barre government is on the brink of being overthrown by rebel groups, plunging the country into further chaos. Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) is the South Korean Ambassador to Somalia, lobbying for their vote in hopes of his country’s admission into the United Nations. It isn’t going well: Barre won’t give him the time of day, and his cabinet members are only interested in personal favors without reciprocation.
Worse: The North Korean government has stronger ties to Somalia, and their ambassador, Rim Yong-Su (Heo Joon-Ho), has nothing but contempt for the South Korean delegation and no problem sabotaging their U.N. aspirations. Both Han Sin-seong and Rim Yong-Su are accompanied by hard-edged intelligence officers who lead their respective counter-plots within the Somali political space. Kang Dae-Jin (Jo In-sung), South Korea’s man, helps plant insinuations that the North Koreans are arming the rebels. His counterpart, Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) pays off gangs to mug the South Koreans on their way to political meetings. It’s diplomatic warfare at every level.
Until the Barre government is overthrown, that is, and both the South Koreans and North Koreans find themselves without protection in a city where everyone is armed and it’s impossible to discern who wants to help you from who wants to kill you. Men and women from a divided peninsula find themselves in a divided country, where their diplomatic strife pales in comparison to the armed combat erupting everywhere.
Escape from Mogadishu shines brightest with its character work. Both Koreas are depicted thoughtfully, their citizens informed by their own prejudices but also forced to rely on one another to make it home alive. Because the North Koreans must rely on the South Koreans, the question of whether they’re defecting to the South is a prominent issue; the Italians who are able to help the South Koreans will not bring the North Koreans if they choose not to defect. Would it be fair, though, to force them to do so? What if they don’t want to defect? What if they can’t? It all hinges on those questions, and Ryoo Seung-wan’s script makes sure the conflicts are expressed through compelling, well-developed characters.
Of course, all of this culminates with a car chase through Mogadishu. To be honest, the chase is perfectly well-choreographed, but I found it to be less interesting than the interpersonal tension throughout the rest of the film. Two diplomats and their governmental spooks trying to hash out a survival plan that doesn’t result in anyone committing treason against their own countries has more gas in the tank than yet another car chase through derelict streets with heavily armed African soldiers shooting endless rounds without ever hitting anything.
The use of Somalia as a setting has historical relevance to the specific story being told here, although some audiences might be perturbed by the lack of detail into the actual political situation depicted here. When things turn, most of the Somalians are depicted as threats regardless of their allegiance. For the sake of the story, that is intentional and very clearly couched in the perspective of the Koreans who are lost in a conflict they also barely understand.
Escape from Mogadishu is a tense political thriller with a car-chase climax. Don’t go in expecting an action film, although it’s sprinkled with tense moments and an effective hand-to-hand sequence. Don’t go in expecting The Raid with diplomacy; instead, prepare yourself for a well-written story of conflicting politics that asks where nationality must end for humanity to persevere.