Escape from Mogadishu is an utterly regressive film that exploits real-life tragedy and trades in offensive screen signifiers.
Action movie maestro Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest film, Escape from Mogadishu, is set in 1991 during Somalia’s civil war, and the first signs of trouble for this movie come right from the top, where on the soundtrack we can actually hear drums and chanting, like some racist Hollywood film from the 1930s. Alas, instead of being an unfortunate aberration, this is fairly indicative of how Somalians, and by extension Africans, and by further extension, Black people, are portrayed in the film.
In 1991, South Korea was vigorously lobbying for UN membership, and the votes of member states were crucial to this effort. Apparently, if this film can be believed, Somalia’s single vote was of paramount importance to South Korea’s government. North Korea was jockeying for a place in the UN as well, which is why the film initially details some fairly tedious business concerning the battle between North and South to curry favor with Somalia’s government and win that prized vote. To that end, Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok), the South Korean ambassador to Somalia, along with intelligence agent Kang Dae-jin (Zo In-sung), are in the Somali capital of Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, and their plan is to basically bribe the president with gifts to win him over to their side. Simple enough. Their North Korean counterparts, diplomat Rim Yong-soo (Huh Joon-ho) and his assistant Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan), are also in the capital, determined to block the South Koreans’ efforts and gain the upper hand.
Eventually, we get to the “escape” part of the plot. While the Korean diplomats are playing their games of one-upmanship, a popular uprising emerges against Somalia’s corrupt government, which soon devolves into outright civil war. Suddenly, the Somalians aren’t so hospitable to their Korean guests, and soon the North Korean embassy is destroyed by rebels. The North Koreans make the dangerous trek to the South Korean embassy, pleading to be let in. Reluctantly, the South Koreans do so, and while both sides are wary and distrusting of one another, they quickly realize that they must work together to make their way out of the country.
Spoiler alert — although the film’s title is already kind of a spoiler — the Koreans make it out mostly intact, and there’s some softening of the barriers between North and South, and just the hint of hope for eventual reconciliation. This is all very nice and uplifting, except for one huge problem: the extremely distasteful reality that a bloody and tragic African civil war is used as the backdrop for some kind of plea for Korean unification. This allows the film to indulge in an infuriatingly distorted, stereotypical view of Africa, and not a single Somalian registers as an actual character; they’re mostly portrayed as mindless, bloodthirsty savages. That is, when they’re not depicted as greedy, corrupt government officials. In its reductive, ill-considered presentation, Escape from Mogadishu becomes just the latest in a long, ignoble line of movies that present Africa as nothing more than a nightmarish, hellish landscape.
All this is a real bummer for obvious reasons, but even more so because Ryoo Seung-wan is a sometimes great director who’s made no small number of genuinely pleasurable, action-oriented films, including No Blood No Tears, Crying Fist, The City of Violence, The Berlin File, and Veteran. That Escape from Mogadishu comes courtesy of him and not some nobody hack makes the disappointment all that much more severe, and to say that he dropped the proverbial ball with this one would be a wild understatement. Sure, there’s filmmaking skill on display, the best example of which comes in the climactic vehicular escape from the besieged South Korean embassy. But honestly, who fucking cares? The pertinent question is: who really needs this type of regressive, tone-deaf bullshit in 2021, or in any other year for that matter?