NYAFF 2021: New York Asian Film Festival Opener ESCAPE FROM MOGADISHU

New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 모가디슈

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

Among the many, many things I have come to appreciate over the course of my experience with the New York Asian Film Festival is the comparative boldness of South Korean cinema. Whereas American blockbuster cinema seeks above all else to pacify and divert, the filmmakers leading the charge in South Korea are unafraid to confront the pressing political issues of their time. And what’s more, they do it in their mainstream entertainment; their blockbusters have a clear point of view and an engagement with reality that is practically anathema to the Hollywood studio system. And there’s really no better example of exactly that than the opening night film of this years festival, Ryo Seung-wan’s Escape From Mogadishu.

A thriller inspired by real life events, Escape From Mogadishu functions on the level of a blockbuster action thriller of the kind Hollywood has precious little interest in these days. It delivers very visceral thrills and an unexpected level of grounding humanity.

The story begins in Somalia circa 1990, when tensions between current leader President Barre and the rebellious forces aligned against him are coming to a head. Into the midst of this powder keg are the North and South Korean delegations, stationed in the capital city Mogadishu in order to petition for admittance to the United Nations.

And here we get our comedy, a sly mix of satire and out and out slapstick, as Ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok) and his right hand man, intelligence officer Kang (Jo In-sung), wade their way through the borderline absurdist walls of graft and bureaucracy necessary to become players on the world stage.

Unsurprisingly, South Korea is portrayed as very much the underdog here, with their six person embassy crew and constantly getting one-upped by the machinations of Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho), who seems to be able to outwit and outplay Han at every turn.

(There is talk of a leak inside the South Korean embassy, a plot point that will be rendered woefully irrelevant by the events to come)

But even as this comic sequence of glad handing and , the tension is still there, ever simmering. A bit about a poorly packed bribe segues into a brutal robbery with a head-spinning immediacy that begins and ends in mere moments. And smoothly segues right back into comedy as the beleaguered diplomats race to still make their meeting on time.

And when the revolution starts in earnest (with the powers that be and the embassies aligned with them trying to convince themselves it was a mere riot), it comes on like a spark that turns into an all-consuming blaze before their very eyes.

And from then on, it’s a struggle for survival as the streets become a bloody battlefield and anyone considered an ally of the old regime becomes a target. Both the North and South Korea delegations are desperate to get out alive, but up until very late in the game it remains an open question whether or not their fractious politics will wind up trumping their survival instincts.

I cannot stress enough how much this all plays out as, for lack of a better word, high entertainment. And again, this is the appeal of South Korean cinema; given the setup, it is all too easy to imagine the “serious” version; handheld camera work, a dour, documentary style tone, the characters written as victims of history as opposed to fully developed human beings. There is, I’m sure, a satisfying version of this story in that style, but it’s also the most obvious route to go with it.

What we have here instead, and arguably more to the benefit of an audience, is a movie shot and edited in classically cinematic style, and in the end that specific choice works wonders; especially taken in tandem with said style being used to detail the exploits of characters who are most emphatically not action heroes.

And so there is true tension, and (unless you’re already versed in how things play out), we can never be sure if our protagonists are going to be able to make their way out of any of the situations they find themselves in; there is a car chase that concludes the movie that is among the most dynamic car chases put onto film in easily a decade, and it’s directly because there’s no guarantee anyone involved will actually make it to the finish line intact.

As festival opening salvos go, it’s hard to argue against the sheer visceral impact that Escape From Mogadishu makes in its briskly paced two hour runtime. They don’t make movies like this anywhere else, and if you ask me, that’s a loss for the entire world.


Previous post Review: VIVO is the Latest Exuberant Lin-Manuel Miranda Musical Triumph
Next post HOWLING VILLAGE is a Satisfying Slice of Japanese Horror