By Hong Taek Chung and Sarah Paik
What does a gifted filmmaker do with an almost unbelievable story that happens to be true? Make cinematic tour de force, of course. This year’s Baeksang Awards‘ Best Film winner, “Escape from Mogadishu” was based on actual events preceding and during the outbreak of a Somalian civil war.
In January 1991, the South Korean and North Korean embassies in Mogadishu are engaged in efforts to lobby the Somalian government in their respective efforts to join the United Nations. Sabotaging each other’s efforts, the animosity between the countries isn’t surprising but the outbreak of a brutal civil war on foreign soil upends the rivalry and leaves both camps scrambling to get out of the country alive.
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to flee a war-torn country in a sedan under a hail of machine-gun fire? Wonder no more and go stream “Escape from Mogadishu”. That chase is the film’s calling card but it’s the quieter moments that truly make you feel like you were there, living at an embassy when your host country suddenly explodes into war.
Against the backdrop of rebel forces arming children and the bewildering abundance of automatic weapons on both sides, chaos and terror define the early days of Somalia’s civil war. The brutality of the civil war is devastating and the Koreans from both sides of the 38th parallel find themselves questioning their own bitter conflict.
Getting the details right was important to Director Ryoo Seung-wan, who won Baeksang’s Grand Prize in Film. The real South Korean Ambassador (Kang Shin-sung, who was called Han Shin-sung in the film) noted that some creative license was taken with how the North Koreans in Mogadishu first came to shelter at the South Korean embassy. But the “Escape from Mogadishu” writer/director went to great lengths to capture the events of Mogadishu in 1991.
“Escape from Mogadishu” Based on Memoir
Having based the film on Kang’s memoir, Ryoo also employed a camera crew member who lived through the Somali civil war and even asked Somali students studying in South Korea to call their families to check that the film accurately portrayed the era and location (filming took place in Morocco since Somalia was considered too dangerous at the time of filming).
“With the car chase, the true story was so dramatic that it’s almost unbelievable,” said Ryoo to Screendaily. “They divided into four cars and headed towards the Italian embassy. The government forces mistook them for rebels and started shooting at them. Then the rebel forces thought they were government vehicles and started shooting.”
Escape’s chase is a masterwork of filmmaking that gets your adrenaline pumping to the point where you can practically smell the panic and fear inside those cars. But in the days that followed my screening, it was actually the scenes revealing parallel roles that lingered; it was the eerie similarity between the South and North Korean ambassadors, their deputies and their wives that continued to resonate.
In the days that the North and South Koreans sheltered together at the South Korean embassy, it was often difficult to distinguish which side of the 38th parallel the diplomats and their families originated. The two Korean ambassadors quickly established a working camaraderie. And their younger, more hotheaded deputies fought each other in a very similar style, before the brawl was interrupted by the ambassadors– reminiscent of a father breaking up a throwdown between brothers.
The Surprising Power of Sharing a Meal
In one unforgettable scene where the sworn enemies are silently eating a meal together, a North Korean woman helps a South Korean woman separate the stuck together leaves of a kkaetnip dish, a scene so familiar to Koreans yet one that has so much meaning in this unlikely gathering.
“The North Koreans came with rice that they had dug underground before leaving their residence as well as some vegetables and other foodstuffs,” recounted the real Ambassador Kang Shin-sung to Korea JoongAng Daily. “The wives from both sides prepared dinner. It felt like a family.”
Outside the embassy walls in Mogadishu, the interaction and depiction of young Somali and North Korean boys also struck a chord in the how war can arm a child but can’t seem to stifle how boys “play” with guns. In the film, two young Somali boys point their assault weapons at the North Koreans on their way to the South Korean embassy. Neither side understands the other’s language but bloodshed is averted when one of the North Korean boys “plays” dead and gestures for the other North Koreans to follow suit. The Somali boys laugh at the pantomime and let the group pass.
But more haunting is the gaze of a young North Korean boy on his way to the airport. The view outside his bus window? Dozens of young Somali boys armed with rifles and machine guns lining the streets of Mogadishu. The exhausted Korean boy takes in his final glimpse of a country at war. None of the pre-teens are in school; One boy is escaping almost certain death while the other boys remain in a country engulfed in a civil war where they hold guns instead of books.
Viscerally capturing the bloody start of a country turning against itself, the film also illuminates how political divides can fall away in times of crisis. And talk about a gut punch of a finish. I can’t recall another cinematic moment when a silent downward gaze left so much unsaid.
“Escape from Mogadishu” won Best Film and Grand Prize in Film for Director Seung-wan Ryoo at the 2022 Baeksang Awards. It also captured 2021’s highest box office in Korea and was the country’s 2022 Academy Award entry for foreign language film.
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