To the likely relief of South Korea’s movie industry, action thriller Escape from Mogadishu is finally out. With its original 2020 release delayed due to COVID-19, this blockbuster became one of summer 2021’s most hotly anticipated Korean movies. Despite surging COVID infections, South Korean theaters are still open. This has helped Escape set a new yearly record for ticket sales after opening on July 28; an August 6 North American theatrical release is also on the horizon.
In both style and substance, Escape from Mogadishu tries to emulate American action blockbusters. It falls into the same traps as its Hollywood brethren, but lacks the budget or imagination to dig itself out. However, how the film depicts relations between North and South Korean characters is worth deeper examination. Unlike other popular media about inter-Korean relations, Escape from Mogadishu avoids idealistic appeals to reunification, and reflects pragmatic attitudes that are on the rise in South Korea.
Unity Amidst Civil War
Escape from Mogadishu begins in late 1990. North and South Korea have both established embassies in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, and are competing to gain the East African country’s support for their respective United Nations membership bids (due to Cold War tensions, both Koreas only joined the UN in September 1991, after a decades-long stalemate). It’s a decidedly backwater post, and both Koreas maintain small, isolated presences.
Leading South Korea’s delegation are Ambassador Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) and Counselor Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung); Kang also happens to be an intelligence operative. Han and Kang are trying to curry favor with Somali president Siad Barre, but not having much luck. The North Koreans—headed by grizzled Ambassador Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho)—seem to beat them at every turn when it comes to getting official meetings and building high-level relationships.
However, the tide turns when rebels from the United Somali Congress suddenly enter Mogadishu and begin attacking foreigners, especially those close to Barre. The rebels quickly trash the North Korean embassy and, with no help from China or the Soviet Union available, Ambassador Rim decides to bring his diplomats and their families to seek refuge at South Korea’s embassy. The South Koreans reluctantly let them in, and, as the security situation further deteriorates, the two Korean delegations realize they must combine forces to escape from Mogadishu.
Black Hawk Down… with no Black Hawks?
Most English-language coverage of Escape from Mogadishu has included comparisons to Black Hawk Down, the 2001 Hollywood war film that most Anglophone moviegoers associate with “Somalia.” In fact, Escape’s filmmakers decided to shoot in Morocco because Black Hawk Down also filmed there.
Generally, Escape from Mogadishu takes many pages from globetrotting Hollywood action blockbusters—and inherits all the associated problems. It dumps a star-studded cast in an “exotic” foreign locale, paints on layers of dirt and grime, recruits masses of dark-skinned locals to fire AK-47s in the background, and adds explosions to keep audiences entertained. Just as Hollywood movies view the world through an “America first” lens, Escape is more about Koreans than Somalians. All the Somali characters are either corrupt officials, drugged-up child soldiers, or expendable cannon fodder. Perhaps because the filmmakers thought action would be enough, the Korean characters feel quite flat too; they change little throughout the movie’s two hour runtime.
Usually, Hollywood action blockbusters can paint over such issues with money and military partnerships. Escape from Mogadishu has no such advantages. Korean movie budgets are still smaller than Hollywood ones, and Escape’s story creates inherent constraints given that neither Korea sent troops or helicopters to Somalia during the 1990s. This means the film’s Korean characters actually don’t have guns, and spend most of their time fleeing explosions rather than generating them. Escape from Mogadishu will always feel like a letdown if compared to big budget war movies like Black Hawk Down, because it can neither have literal Black Hawks nor the high-octane action such helicopters represent.
Reconciliation without Reunification
However, Escape from Mogadishu becomes a much more interesting film when viewed instead as a reflection of inter-Korean relations. Over the past two decades, South Korean movies and dramas usually depict relations with North Korea through the lens of bromance or romance—take 2019’s wildly popular Crash Landing on You for example. Most of these movies and dramas treat Korean reunification as the ultimate end goal, and some even directly exhort viewers to help “realize reunification in our time.”
While such warmth towards reunification might still exist among stalwarts in South Korea’s left wing, “reunification in our time” is not so popular anymore, especially among younger South Koreans. Given North and South Korea’s socioeconomic situations are so far apart now, a significant proportion of South Koreans actually prefer a state of separate peaceful coexistence instead—which feels more pragmatic than spending potentially trillions of dollars and mountains of political effort on achieving reunification.
Escape from Mogadishu is probably the only Korean blockbuster thus far that focuses on this notion of peaceful coexistence. It’s worth noting that while Escape’s director Ryoo Seung-wan previously made a spy film called The Berlin File that also eschewed the pitched idealism that often comes with inter-Korean politics in cinema, it did not paint a picture of “reconciliation without reunification” like Escape does.
In Escape, we see this portrait of a reunification-less Korea come to life right when the film’s South Korean characters agree to help the North Koreans. They justify the decision by remarking “we’ll just temporarily help them get out of here, it’s not like we’re trying to reunify.” Not too long after that, South Korean Counselor Kang tries to force the North Koreans to defect—only for Ambassador Han to stop him, and promise the North Koreans that they can return to Pyongyang as they please.
Furthemore, unlike other movies where North and South Korean characters might bond over shared love of Choco-Pies or other heart-warming commonalities, Escape from Mogadishu’s character connections are rather practical. For instance, North Korean Ambassador Rim borrows insulin from one of the South Korean diplomats; it’s medical aid on a micro scale, not a love story. When certain characters get separated, there are no cries of “see you after reunification” like you’d see in other K-movies—only knowing glances implying that, while North and South Korea have an unbreakable bond of brotherhood, it may be better for the two figurative brothers to live under different roofs.
While this lack of pitched emotional appeals and excessive bromance might blunt Escape’s ability to connect with some audiences, it’ll pique the interest of anybody who studies inter-Korean relations. Besides, there are probably enough Korean moviegoers who are tired of unificationist bromides, and might feel excited at seeing something different. If Escape from Mogadishu succeeds in line with its high box office expectations, it may help lay the groundwork for more films that appeal to inter-Korean pragmatism instead of idealism.
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Escape from Mogadishu (Korean: 모가디슈)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan. First released July 26, 2021. Running time 2hr 1min. Starring Kim Yoon-seok, Jo In-sung, Heo Joon-ho, Kim So-jin.
Escape from Mogadishu has its North American premiere on August 6, 2021 at the New York Asian Film Festival. Tickets are available here. A broader theatrical release will occur in select North American locales thereafter.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival.