Action / Thrillers, Comedy, Drama, Films, Political, Reviews, Satire, South Korea, War

Escape From Mogadishu

Ryoo Seung-wan manages to make pulse-pounding popular cinema out of peculiar politics and extraordinary true events…

The history of the Cold War is often framed almost exclusively around the rivalry between the two superpowers (and occasionally the few secondary Western powers and China), when in reality it was almost an entire world based (or forced) around camps, and those camps had many different levels. While the resource-rich region of sub-Saharan Africa was often jockeyed for by the superpowers, there was also significant, often independent involvement from France, Cuba, China, Libya, Israel and more. Most peculiarly, Cold War battlegrounds themselves had their own battlegrounds within battlegrounds among foreign interests. One such case occurred in the early 1990s in Somalia, as North and South Korea — both desperate for recognition as part of the UN — came to prize Africa and particularly Somalia (as they held a crucial vote) as unlikely power brokers. 

The head of Somalia’s military, Said Barre, had been ruling since his 1969 coup created a de facto Marxist government with strong USSR support. Though starting off modernising and reforming his country, a disastrous, crippling loss in 1978 from a war with Ethiopia (thanks to the USSR and Cuba abandoning Somalia to crucially support its more established communist ally) triggered a full-blown insurgency. So after Barre fell out with the communist bloc, the USA quickly went from considering him an adversary to making him one of their closest and most heavily funded allies in the region — going a curiously similar but opposite-order trajectory to US relationships of subsequent years with Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega. But as the insurgency and US support grew, so too did Barre’s ruthless desperation in trying to keep power, targeting dissidents and sometimes entire ethnic clans for mass killings. 

Thus our based-on-facts story begins three years into South Korea’s diplomatic mission in Mogadishu in 1990. The South Korean Embassy has a very small staff led by Ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok, The Chaser), and assisted by his wife Kim (Kim So-jin, The Spy Gone North), his “more diplomat than human” (and that’s usually a good thing) secretary, Gong (Jung Man-sik, Beasts Clawing at Straws), and their local driver/assistant, Swama. Han has a meeting with “Counselor” Kang (Jo In-sung) of the KCIA (just guess what it stands for), as they prepare to meet President Barre with a suitcase full of “gifts” to win his favour. Unfortunately, on their way to the Presidential Palace they’re attacked by road bandits who shoot up their car and make off with their suitcase. But perhaps their robbery was not random….

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Han finds that after they arrive too late, the next scheduled meeting already taking place is with the Ambassador’s ambassadorial archrival: Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho, Silmido) from the North! The practical Rim is accompanied by his own right hand man (that he also doesn’t fully get along with), the borderline fanatical Counselor Tae (Koo Kyo-hwan) and their delegation. Alarmed by NK’s more established presence that’s escalated to lobbying ministers to support their UN bid (and instead of SK’s), and how Somali officials are “cheating on him” via Northern temptation, Han begins to suspect (either out of real suspicion or convenience) that NK is arming the rebels and seeks to expose them over it. But if that is true, that’s ominous news for SK as the rebels are making significant gains into the capital.

All involved parties know it’s gotten serious upon hearing the manifesto of General Aidid — leader of the (for now) most powerful rebel group, the United Somali Congress — essentially warning that any foreign governments associating with Barre will be considered enemies all the same. Now with citywide travel restrictions in place, South and North Koreans are for once united in being thoroughly screwed. Trapped between corrupt government forces (who they’re running out of bribery capital for), hostile rebels, civilians who already have enough to worry about, bureaucratic hurdles that even keep their own countries from helping them (or seeing them as worth the trouble), and eventually having no electricity or water, one key question nevertheless remains: will it still be enough to make the rival delegations accept (let alone cooperate with) each other?  

 Beginning as an unabashed farce that nevertheless takes its historical context seriously, Mogadishu is something of a spiritual sequel to Ryoo’s Seung-wan’s earlier The Berlin File (2013), which also involved rivalry between the Koreas (including embassy staff) under an international backdrop. Indeed, those who’ve followed Ryoo should not be surprised about Mogadishu’s fundamental elements. In addition to his career almost exclusively vacillating between (still widely varying) crime and political (usually spy) themes, most of Ryoo’s films are marked by a farcical or flippant tone for usually dark or brutal subject matter, right from his first features Die Bad (2000) and No Blood No Tears (2002).

That pattern of deliberate dissonance peaks in intensity for this film; but more importantly, it’s now more polished, technically accomplished and befitting than ever before. After all, Somalia itself (alongside neighbouring Ethiopia amidst their rivalry) at the time was being rendered a real-life tragic farce of geopolitical theatre. Yet the film is still clearly catered to be fully accessible to Korean and international audiences for what’s now a fairly distant time, place and political world in general. 

The film potently builds suspense in contextualising the gradual collapse of stability. Who’s in charge of what gets appropriately muddled from every angle. By the point of the rebels manifesto, Barre was no more in full charge of his country than anyone after him to this day has been (though stability’s gotten considerably better in recent years). Ambassador Han is technically Counselor Kang’s boss, but in some ways has less power than the KCIA (as they emphatically proved a decade earlier in assassinating their own President and all — see The President’s Last Bang). Rim has even more trouble with his “Counselor”, who questions whether whatever violence rebels can inflict on them can be worse than collaborating with the enemy (especially if Pyongyang sees it that way). Thus even if the two mini-Koreas are forced to cooperate they should still be plotting against each other — might as well be prepared and take precautions against losing face just in case you survive or anything.

Notably and unusually, the end credits come with an extensive list of citations like a UK Home Office immigration report and books like “Out of Mogadishu: A Memoir of the Somali Civil War in 1991” (Yusuf Mohamed Haid). That relative degree of care is one of the most noticeable things about Mogadishu (that frankly shouldn’t be something to see as remarkable, but nevertheless is). Somalia is more than just a backdrop and Somalis are not largely rendered more or less as monsters, a dangerous kind of exotic or soulless victims. That had essentially happened in the most famous movie about Somalia and particularly this building conflict, 2001’s Black Hawk Down — I could never help but notice the fact the Somali soldiers/rebels/civilians (thereby only excluding a couple of villain leaders) scarcely had so much as a line of dialogue on that movie, just opting for grunting, growling and screaming instead. 

Mogadishu however, makes it a point to help the audience understand how and why the country lands in that situation, and even why the more brutal elements come to think of foreigners the way that they do (including some who see them as targets of convenience or even novelty rather than enemies to single out). And it doesn’t by any means forget how South Korea was just then starting to make the transition into democracy themselves after a string of dictatorships through nearly their entire postwar history.

White Benz Down

Dear Viewer: If you don’t know or aren’t worried any about Ryoo’s evolution as a director or tracing the history of Somalia within the context of South Korean transitional politics or any of that crap, that’s fine! Because if you’re just coming to see a hell of a thriller, you’re in just as much of the right place. From almost exactly the second half of its two hours, Mogadishu makes a sharp content shift towards an action-thriller that clearly makes its namesake the chief concern (including somewhat straining credibility at a certain point, but not too disruptively). The thoughtful first half nevertheless adds much to it in building up a clear purpose and strong reaction. And even amidst several uncompromisingly brutal and nail-biting scenes, the film never fully drops its droll (and later drolly macabre) tinge, including one memorable scene involving a “confrontation” with child soldiers.  

One last standout component needing mention is the cinematography, as it stays active and inventive in generating tension and intrigue for the first half and thrills for the second. Beyond the imaginative angles and capturing of fine scenery (in Morocco to substitute for Somalia), Mogadishu’s most ingenious moment has the camera literally going through a procession of vehicles in a quick, fluid pan as they’re being shot up.   

Escape from Mogadishu provides an overall experience that probably can’t be found anywhere else in its industry, with roughly one half a fine political farce and one half a (defensive) action spectacle to match a good Hollywood blockbuster; all linked by real history in an unusual setting. For a director who started his official career in 2000 with the micro-budgeted Die Bad — a desperately crafted debut compiled from years of shorts scraped together through odd jobs — it’s outright astounding to see the results ultimately rooted from it here. For that, Mogadishu can be seen as a greater example of the incredible strides and resilience of Korean cinema itself. 

“Is it inconvenient using your left hand [to eat]?”

“….I use both hands! I don’t want people calling me a leftist.”

Escape From Mogadishu screened as the opening film of New York Asian Film Festival 2021, and is on theatrical release now in North America from Well Go USA.

 

Side notes

While Black Hawk Down is more outwardly similar in setting by time and place, this is actually more comparable to Edward Zwick’s 2006 Blood Diamond. Both films have a detailed but popular cinema-friendly documentation of an African country’s descent into civil war amidst the backdrop of competing foreign interests and foreigners who get trapped in it for that. But Mogadishu is even better.

Much of the North Korean dialogue has Korean subtitles just as the Somali and English does, as North Korean dialect/accents — though technically mutually intelligible — can be tough for many South Koreans to fully follow. 

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Technically a product of the Carolinas; branching more widely in roots; a citizen of the world at heart. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages all over. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
Read all posts by Wally Adams

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