Films based on real-life events tend to be stories worth paying attention to. If events end up being so dramatic, so amazing, or so frightening that they outshine some of the best fiction that writers can come up with, they’re events that belong on the big screen. They often end up being the place for stories about some of the bravest and most daring people to be told, and Escape From Mogadishu is no exception to this, as I was left increasingly amazed as its story unfolded.
Escape From Mogadishu begins just before the fall of the Barre regime in Somalia in 1991. Here we spend some time getting to know two of the embassies situated in the capital Mogadishu. There’s the South Korean embassy, a relatively new, small team headed up by ambassador Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok) with the help of his tough intelligence officer, Kang Dae-Jin (Ing-Sung Jo). And there’s the North Korean embassy, run by the much more experienced ambassador Rim Yong-su (Joon-ho Huh). As the South Korean embassy tries to get meetings with President Barre, bringing him gifts, trying to get him to back their petition to be admitted to the UN, the two embassies clash.
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However, their own personal vendettas have to go on the back-burner when rebel forces reach Mogadishu, bringing war to the city. As both groups sit inside their embassies the fighting gets worse, and they each realise that their only hope for survival in ever increasing violence is to get out of the country. Unfortunately, neither has a way of contacting their governments, and there seems to be no way out. When rebels attack the North Korean embassy, killing some of the staff in the process, Rim leads the survivors, including several children, to look for a safe haven. When all they can find is the South Korean embassy, both groups realise that only by working together and putting their differences aside will they be able to survive; but can so much animosity and mistrust be easily forgotten?
Escape From Mogadishu paints a very stark picture. Mogadishu is shown as a hot, depressing, and dangerous place even before the fighting starts, with none of the people from the Korean embassies really wanting to be there. Each side is desperate to get backing from President Barre to get admittance to the UN, and if it wasn’t for children being kept as hostages in North Korea, and intense governmental pressure from both sides, neither ambassador would choose to be there. Even before the violence begins you get a sense that these are people close to the end of their ropes, who want nothing more than to go home.
Once the fighting begins it doesn’t take long for things to go from bad to downright horrifying. Director Seung-wan Ryu doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal, harsh realities of this conflict. Police chase down and beat suspected rebels to death in the street, people end up rioting over food and supplies, and rebel forces strip and publicly execute those working for Barre. The film doesn’t hide these horrors from the audience, and there are several times I found myself watching on in horror as I wanted to turn away because of how unflinching things are.
It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to live through these events, especially as people with no real stake in the conflict, potentially being seen as enemies or conspirators by either side at any moment. The cast of Escape From Mogadishu seem to play this very well though, and as the movie progresses you see calm and confident men reduced to fearful wrecks, people unsure of themselves stepping up and taking on a leadership role, and decades long cultural tensions boiling up to breaking point. Every single actor does an amazing job, but especially the two principal leads, Kim Yoon-seok and Joon-ho Huh.
The thing that makes this story even more amazing is that it’s not just watching people try to survive this awful, brutal situation, but seeing the two groups come together. Even if you know very little about the history between North Korea and South Korea you really feel it here, and as such you quickly understand just how momentous it is when both sides come together. Both groups know that if their governments find out it would mean facing military tribunals, it could mean never seeing their families again. Both sides have been taught to think of the other as alien, dangerous, and strange, and we see moments where they talk about the other side like they’re completely different. This pays off wonderfully when both sides sit down to eat together for the first time and you see each discovering how similar they are to the other, without a single piece of dialogue being said. It’s an amazing moment, one that really gets you invested in these two groups, and one that’s a stand-out for the film.
It’s not just these small character focused moments that stand out either, as there are several scenes where violence and tension runs high. The scenes where the North Korean group makes their way through the city at night, searching for a safe haven, are nerve wracking, and the final run to freedom at the end is an incredible sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat. Other than a few CGI dogs that look less than perfect making a couple of appearances, the film looks and feels incredible, and you end up feeling like you’re in the middle of this nightmare.
I didn’t know about the events this film depicted before coming to it, but by the end I found myself wanting to learn more about this event, and these amazing people. This is a film that not only brought this moment in history to life in amazing, captivating detail, but made it something that I’m going to be thinking about for a long while too.
I don’t often like war films based on real events, I don’t like to relish in entertainment derived from the deaths and horror that humanity has caused each other, but this film isn’t just about that. Escape From Mogadishu showcases how our shared humanity is much more powerful, and how you can put aside lifetimes of hate and mistrust, see the connections you share with others, and do amazing things. This is without a doubt the best film that I’ve seen yet this year, and it’s a travesty it didn’t end up nominated for this year’s Oscars.
Escape From Mogadishu is out in Cinemas and on Digital Platforms on 25th March from Signature Entertainment.