Escape from Mogadishu – Movie Review

While the suffering of civilians caught in the disaster is not sufficiently or sympathetically shown, the remarkable reconstruction of a war zone is the film's greatest accomplishment

Escape from Mogadishu (2021) is an action-thriller which catapults one into the maelstrom of war. Based on the true story of stranded North and South Korean diplomats cooperating to escape from the Somali capital, which is engulfed by civil war. The city is literally a death trap, which looks bloodier and scarier than Saigon and Kabul evacuations. The film is set during the dramatic and anarchic collapse of the Somali government in 1991. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo, the film was nominated for the 2022 Oscar’s best international feature category. Ryoo’s amazing reconstruction of war zone is perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment, arguably unmatched by any movie of recent memory, with the exception of Ben Affleck’s best-picture-winning Argo.

In the movie, Mogadishu is a lawless city revolting against General Barre’s long-time rule. Gunshots and explosions are heard with increasing frequency and intensity. At the onset, the Somali government is in control of the city – its last stronghold before the rebels overrun it and expel Barre from the city. The civil war is vicious. Firearms are ubiquitous. Roadblocks manned by heavily armed militias, including child soldiers, are everywhere. The country’s future is bleak. Despite the blurring chaos of war and the depressing sight of social strife, Mogadishu’s urban landscape, where the modern blends with the traditional, is distinctively clear, so cleverly shown by modern cars driving past donkey carts. Foaming waves crashing on rocky seacoast and the frustrated sweaty faces of the Koreans captures Mogadishu’s sweltering heat and the tension of a soon-to-be destroyed city.

The film does not illuminate the nature of the Somali conflict, which would later morph into one of Africa’s most protracted and intractable conflicts. The nexus between an oppressive rule and an inevitable revolting public is not sufficiently shown. The nearly decade-long armed rebellion which preceded the city’s fall and the ouster of nation’s military leader is also overlooked. The suffering of the Somali people and the humanitarian crisis at this tragic moment of their history is not amply demonstrated, if not ignored. Somali characters in the movie are badly depicted, with only their monstrous side emphasised. Child soldiers cock and point a gun at every car that comes to pass their checkpoint – an end-stage symbol of social disintegration and breakdown of rule of law.

Somali soldiers and rebel militias are trigger-happy, red-eyed, and heavily armed. The lives of the locals seem not to matter. Dead bodies strewn about the streets are almost invisible to the foreigners escaping the city. And just like The Black Hawk Down – a movie inspired by the shooting down of the US helicopter – the sheer number of Somali casualties in the conflict is deliberately ignored. The Americans, Barre’s chief backers, are nowhere to be seen. To the movie’s credit, the racial dimension of humanitarian evacuation is noted – white faces are easily rescued; black and brown faces had to produce Western travel documents to be helped out.

Either deliberately or for technical issues, non-Somalis playing Somali characters is the movie’s biggest weakness. Somali characters are played by Kenyans – who have different distinctive physical features to Somalis, like Sama (Andrew Nganga Kimani) and Peter Kawa – who play a Somali driver for the South Koreans and an armed Somali officer respectively. It’s like Italians playing Norwegian characters – shared European heritage but with different physical features. The Director’s bias is best evidenced by portraying South Koreans more positively in the movie – more rational.

In the movie, Barre is corrupt to the core, even though the real character is not shown. His army and military police are ruthless. He receives gifts and bribes from both sides. His subordinates also demand their share of the bribe as one minister asks the South Koreans $50,000 dollars to pay for the tuition of his children who are studying in the United States. Barre is losing grip of the city, having already lost the rest of the nation to various rebel groups. And as the city is further consumed by the violence, diplomatic protection means nothing. The survival of the fittest is the rule. Unlike Barre, General Aideed is played by a character making a radio announcement, informing all embassies to either work with him to oust Barre’s corrupt regime or be deemed enemy of the people.

The plot starts with South and North Korean diplomats in Mogadishu competing for Somalia’ vote to decide whether South Korea joins the United Nations – an understandable effort as the African continent has traditional had the largest vote at the UN. South Korean ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok) attempts to woo the Somali leader. His North Korean counterpart repeatedly thwarts his efforts, which includes hiring local mercenaries to ambush the South Korean mission’s convoy before the meeting, to deny them audience with the President. Han shows up late and gets a glimpse of the Yoon-seok leaving the presidential compound.

Nothing is off-limits too even for the South Koreans as Kang dae-jin – an intelligence officer assigned to the South Korean embassy – bribes a Western journalist with a packet of cigarettes for photos showing rebels wielding North Korean-made firearms, painting a double-handed nature of the North Koreans of arming both sides of the conflict. The dirty machinations eventually come to an end as both sides find themselves stranded in their respective embassies. Communication is down. Food and water are scarce. The North Korean embassy is stormed by militias. Realising the need to leave the embassy, they navigate a war zone, about a third of mile and fraught with danger. They eventually see from a distance the South Korean flag flying above the embassy, which would understandably arouse in them both a feeling of safety and tension.

Noticed by armed militia who follow them to their planned refuge at the South Korean embassy – which has armed Somali guards stationed on its balconies – the North Koreans run towards it, shouting out loudly to the South Koreans to open the embassy gate for them. Despite a firefight breaking out outside the compound, the South Koreans are reluctant to let them in. Ambassador Han is sympathetic, to the chagrin of his subordinates who object the move. As the armed militia who aim harm the fleeing North Koreans are forced to retreat amid a hail of gunfire, the North Koreans are finally let in.

Fighting for dear life takes precedence to diplomatic interests. At last, they are all Koreans trapped in a raging African civil war, or may be bluntly put, brown-skinned people in the middle of ruthless dark-skinned trigger-happy armed men. The tension at the embassy, where both missions take refuge, is best captured by the uncomfortable silence around the dinner table, a meal that appears their last food in the fridge. The South Koreans start eating first as the Northerners nervously fiddle with their chopsticks, scared of being poisoned by their arch enemies.  Ambassador Han notices the suspicion and swaps plates, in an attempt to assure them that there is no poison in the food. This act alone sums up the sad divide along the Korean peninsula and the deep-seated mistrust on both sides of the border.

Kang dae-jin realises the historic nature of the occasion. He makes a false excuse to get to his camera and secretly takes a picture. A North Korean diplomat realises his intentions and tries to stop him. A fist fight ensues. Their respective ambassadors intervene and stop the brawl. They then plan their final epic escape. Each ambassador approaches a friendly nation: South Koreans ask for the Italian embassy’s help; North Koreans for the Egyptians. As the South Koreans finally make a breakthrough with the Italians, they are not willing to help the North Koreans as the two nations don’t have a diplomatic relationship. Ambassador Han lies to the Italians and convinces them that the North Koreans had defected.

The final thrilling action movie car chase is where Director Ryoo pulls off his most memorable performance. Before the Koreans leave the embassy, they make a makeshift bullet armour for the Mercedes saloons and Volvo estate with duct-taped library books, a desperate measure of using rudimentary means for self-preservation. What happens next is a milestone in production skills – driving through a bombed-out city as militias offer dawn prayer, a perfect opportunity for escape and a symbol of the troubled nation’s Muslim heritage. Under fire from machine guns from every direction, the convoy even runs over dead bodies, an act which reminds many people some of the gruesome scenes of Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda. The convoy is hotly pursued by what looks like a paramilitary group, continually firing at them.

They arrive right outside the Italian embassy, their cars riddled with bullets, but the Koreans are largely unscathed, with the exception of one fatality. The armed group ceases fire upon reaching the embassy. The armed Italian guards on the top of the embassy point down the guns on them. The Koreans are now sandwiched Between the pro-government forces and the Italian embassy guards. Despite the tension and the stand-off, the Koreans safely enter the Italian embassy. The next day, the Koreans board the plane and are flown to Mombasa, Kenya.

Upon landing at the Mombasa airport, they are driven in opposite directions. And so did the trajectory of their respective nations: one poor, isolated nation ruled by dynastic authoritarian; the other increasingly prosperous and free. Political differences overtake shared Korean heritage, and a peaceful unification seems ever more improbable. And if there’s any lesson in this movie, it is the fact that a nation’s decline is gradual buildup, but its collapse can be sudden and dramatic, like pressing an ignition button or a mine triggered by a slight disturbance. As for the protagonist of this daring escape, it shows man’s propensity for good and his equal capacity for evil, and that war is the collapse of the intelligent discourse.

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