In the wake of “Train to Busan” (2016), the South Korean film industry continues to find new ways to tell twisted tales with an action-packed twist. “Escape from Seoul” (aka “A Werewolf Boy”) is the latest entry in this vibrant sub-genre, and the most colorful, perhaps because it’s directed by Huh Jung and Park Chan-wook himself.

After a nearly three year break, director Kim Jee-woon has returned with another action film, “The Wailing”. The film stars Song Kang-ho (from “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”) as a cop who and a rookie detective are tasked with finding a missing girl from a village in South Korea. The film also stars Na Moon-sook (“Train to Busan”), Sam-jo Yeon-soo (“The Chaser”), Kim Sung-ryeol (“Ajjumma”), and Choi Sung-ryeong (“The Terror Live”).

(movies) There’s a lot of excitement going on in South Korea these days. To start with, the country is preparing to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018, and their preparations have been going along quite well. Park Chan-wook, the director of the “Oldboy” films, is the South Korean delegation’s main advisor, and the country is enjoying the company of an impressive cast of actors and actresses: actors Lee Byung-hun and Ha Jung-woo, actresses Song Hye-kyo, Hong Jung-min, and Oh Yeon-soo, as well as B-movie icon Sung Dong-il.

Because of how well-known his mayhem-packed action flicks are in his native country, calling Ryoo Seung-wan one of the most successful South Korean filmmakers of his period isn’t a leap — especially when compared to his more famous peers. From 2013’s The Berlin File to 2015’s Veteran and beyond, the latter of which is currently the fifth-highest grossing film in South Korean cinema history, Ryoo has established himself as a household name by consistently producing thrillers filled with political intrigue, thrilling action sequences, and memorable characters whose lines have since become iconic catchphrases. It should come as no surprise that Ryoo’s action films are as satisfying as they are, given his experience as a stuntman in major South Korean productions (much like Chad Stahelski of John Wick fame). Ryoo’s latest work, Escape from Mogadishu, should be more than enough to satisfy both loyal fans and newcomers to the South Korean action genre.

Getting Caught in the Crosshairs

Set during the ongoing Somali Civil War in 1991, Escape from Mogadishu introduces us to ambassador Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok) and counselor Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung), who have been dispatched by the South Korean government to gain the favor of then-President Mohamed Siad Barre in order to gain UN membership through Somalia’s vote, especially following South Korea’s globalization efforts in the late 1980s. But there’s a catch: North Korea is pursuing the same goal, having dispatched ambassador Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho) and counselor Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan), and the two groups of diplomats are sabotaging each other’s efforts, either by canceling Han and Kang’s appointments and hiring gunmen to rob them, or by spreading rumors about the North Korean government arming an insurgency

However, none of them realizes that the conflict in Somalia is just getting worse, and that when it eventually explodes into all-out bloodshed, both Korean embassies would be shut off from their governments, imprisoned in their separate buildings and running out of supplies. When the North Korean embassy is attacked by a group of rebel militants, its diplomats — as well as the many families they’ve sheltered – take refuge in the South Korean embassy, forcing the two nations to set aside their nationalistic differences in order to escape out of Somalia alive. So starts the rousing mission of Escape from Mogadishu, an exciting, well-made action adventure that provides a gratifying, refreshing view on North-South Korean unification, but at the cost of a nuanced, more important perspective on the Somali Civil War itself.

Escape from Mogadishu

Bravo, USA Entertainment!

The Fight for Survival

With Escape from Mogadishu, South Korean cinema’s longstanding tradition of depicting the ongoing tensions of the Korean War — ranging from perennial classics like 1961’s Aimless Bullet to modern blockbusters like Joint Security Area (from Oldboy’s Park Chan-wook) and the Steel Rain series — appears to have found itself a genre-specific new installment. Indeed, it seems to be the primary purpose of the film’s four protagonists’ performances, as their characters each reflect various elements of their respective nations’ views toward one another, providing a consistent source of tension and catharsis underneath the film’s fast-paced rhythm.

Veteran actors Kim Yoon-seok (The Chaser) and Heo Joon-ho (The Merciless) are naturals at playing the two Korean ambassadors, who, despite unresolved stereotypes and preconceived notions about each other’s trustworthiness, gradually acknowledge the North and South’s mutual need to cooperate and flee Mogadishu. Their younger counselors, on the other hand, prove to be more adversarial, as Jo In-sung and Koo Kyo-characters hwan’s frequently trade insults and blows while remaining wary of and passionately quarreling over one another’s actions, only barely restrained by their superiors in the process — a type of boiling-over energy that Jo and Koo execute with both a nervous sense of bitterness and traces of gall.

Meanwhile, Ryoo’s reliable directing seems to have retained its luster, with his flair for dynamic pace moving the narrative along effectively enough that little time is spent getting to Escape from Mogadishu’s main thrills. The film’s rock-solid production value ensures that nearly everything in the frame, from Mogadishu’s street-side stores and huge stone structures to its brown-shaded vistas and purple-hued sunsets, gives off a genuine feeling of place. In terms of the action, handheld long-takes provide a sense of real-time tension as characters move from one dangerous location to the next, brawls between characters are rivetingly choreographed (with a truly refreshing lack of over-indulgent shaky cam), and the high-octane car chase sequence found near the film’s climax employs some genuinely innovative visual techniques that aren’t easilly found in other films.

Mogadishu

Escape from Mogadishu might have easily been a fascinating juxtaposition of not just one, but two intra-national wars if it had spent more time reflecting the political implications of the Somali Civil War. At the very least, the first act depicts the driving forces behind the Somali conflict, depicting citizens and the United Somali Congress militia’s resistance to Barre’s oppressively dictatorial military rule, as well as how the insurgents threaten international embassies in Somalia unless they stop supporting Barre’s government, which directly leads to the Koreans’ need to ally with the insurgents. However, by the time the film reaches its more action-oriented second half, the uprising’s motivations have mostly faded away, replaced by a generic setpiece threat that the Koreans must avoid — a disappointment for a film that showed signs of exhibiting a nuanced, possibly even anti-authoritarian perspective on the war.

That doesn’t change the fact that Ryoo still has his finger on the pulse of what makes the action genre so successful when utilized to its full technical potential. Escape from Mogadishu is a satisfying experience that anyone with a taste for South Korean cinema and commandingly made thrillers in general should watch for its escapist twists and turns. Filmed with the panache of a veteran who knows the ins and outs of his primary niche, Escape from Mogadishu does fall behind in its relatively wanting investigation of the Somali Civil War, but it’s an entertaining experience that anyone with a taste for South Korean cinema and commandingly made thriller

 


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