Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Gripping Korean Thriller ‘Escape From Mogadishu’

Korean box office hit Escape From Mogadishu has arrived in U.S. cinemas, and it’s gripping stuff. Propelled by a naturally cinematic true story, the thriller blends action with humor and heart to crowd-pleasing effect. Well Go USA handles domestic while the Lotte release recently topped $20M in its home market.

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It’s set in the Somalian capital in 1991. South Korea is keen to gain Somalia’s vote for membership in the United Nations, and is competing with North Korea for the President’s attention. South Korean Ambassador Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok) is joined by Counselor Kang Dae-jin (Zo In-sung), a member of South Korea’s intelligence agency. They’re trying all the tricks in the book, but have more pressing concerns when local protests escalate into civil war. Desperate to return home, they’re cut off from the outside world with their families in the embassy. When the North Korean ambassador Rim Yong-su (Huh Joon-ho) arrives on their doorstep, reluctantly begging for shelter along with his staff and their families, they have a choice to make: do they turn away their sworn rivals, or band together, risking their lives in the hope that all can escape?

It’s a riveting set up that recalls everything from Ben Affleck’s escape thriller Argo to 2005’s Joyeux Noël, the French film about a wartime truce in which soldiers played football. There’s even a flavor of The Sound Of Music, as families try to figure out who to trust to help them flee. Confidently helmed by South Korean Ryoo Seung-wan (Crying Fist), it uses the emotive power of the scenario without tipping over into cliché. The characters often bond or soften with a nod, or a look, rather than an emotional monologue.

While a couple of Somalian characters have names and agency, their appearances are fairly brief and their characters aren’t explored, so Escape From Mogadishu doesn’t offer their perspective, or shed much light on the civil war itself. This is deliberately shown from the point of view of foreigners caught up in terrifying violence that they don’t expect, or fully understand. It follows its core central group closely before tensions escalate, taking time to set the scene and create characters to root for. It’s here that the humor is at its most pronounced, playing off everything from cultural misunderstandings to light physical comedy.

But after the laughs, come the gasps. When the action arrives, it’s shocking, scary, confusing — and detail is key. There’s a scene in which women, men and children all hunt around for books to strap to cars, in an effort to protect them from bullets. It’s the kind of detail that gives weight to a story and sets it apart from generic, fictional action thrillers. Of course, Escape From Mogadishu is a dramatized version of real events, that casts its South Korean characters in the more flattering light — but it doesn’t feel exaggerated to the point of being sensationalized. And thank goodness the clue is in the name, or the tension would be unbearable.

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