Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Swordsman (검객, Choi Jae-hoon, 2020)

“Is this all there is to being a soldier?” a jaded young man asks of an apparently reluctant mentor as he, also reluctantly it seems, prepares to betray his king merely because the balance of power has shifted. Drawing heavily from wuxia and chanbara, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Swordsman (검객, Geomgaek) once again takes on the futility of violence as the two men who might each lay claim to the title attempt to escape the complicated world of Joseon politics but find themselves unable to escape the legacy of the blade while facing an internal debate as to how to protect that which is most precious to them.

Loosely “inspired by true events” as the opening title card insists, the action opens in 1623 with King Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung) fleeing the palace in the wake of insurrection. Like pretty much every other ruler, he’s been accused of murdering his siblings to usurp the throne and has lost the the support of the army, including his personal swordsman Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), after instructing his generals to surrender to the enemy. Valiantly protected by lone defender Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), Gwanghae makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people and agrees to go quietly pausing only to secretly entrust his infant daughter to the last man standing. 

Flashforward 15 years or so and Tae-yul is now a mountain recluse raising his teenage daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) alone in hiding from nefarious forces. The problem is that his eyesight is now failing and a trip to the physician to acquire medicine proves fruitless when it turns out such rare substances are available only to those with connections. Tae-ok wants to take up an offer from a local lord to become his foster daughter in order to get her father the medicine, but he is understandably reluctant. Meanwhile, a new threat has arrived in town in the form of thuggish Qing slave traders apparently intent on further disrupting the already unbalanced Joseon political situation which is divided in support of the Ming. 

The political context in itself is only subtly conveyed, though this is a rare period drama in which the focus is only tangentially on courtly intrigue in the suggestions that constant machinations by ambitious lords have undermined the notions of soldierly honour and loyalty that ordinarily support the feudal system. The conflicted Min, a man of the sword, retires from the court because he isn’t certain he acted correctly in his actions towards Gwanghae and fears he was merely manipulated as he later is by bloodthirsty slave trader Gurantai (Joe Taslim). Gurantai and his henchmen seem to be on the look out solely for a worthy opponent to satiate their boredom, threatening an entire kingdom in the process. Tae-yul, by contrast, has renounced the way of the sword altogether and attempted to isolate himself from worldly violence in order to better protect his daughter only to find himself dragged down from the mountain by her love for him in insisting he find the means to fix his eyes. 

When Tae-ok is kidnapped by Gurantai who has figured out who she is (in one sense or another), Tae-yul enters full on Taken mode determined to save both the girl herself and reclaim this relic of an earlier, purer world to which she is perhaps the heir pausing only to free a few slaves on his way. Operating on a much lower budget than your average period drama, Choi shoots mainly in a shaky handheld maintaining an indieish aesthetic in keeping with the rough and ready quality of the narrative which seems to draw equally from Hollywood westerns, Hong Kong wuxia, and Japanese samurai movies in its relentless drive towards the final showdown. Making a few points about he changing nature of the times and the futility of violence, the minions of a venal lord are eventually cutdown by rows of Qing armed with rifles while they flounder helplessly with only their blades, swordsmanship itself now an obsolete art though apparently one still valuable to bored, insecure leaders such as Gurantai. Nevertheless, the expertly choreographed action scenes have a mounting intensity from Tae-yul’s early refusal to unsheathe his distinctive double-edged blade to the merciless killing of a female bystander at the film’s conclusion. Ending with an ironic return to the world, apparently now changed, The Swordsman kicks back against feudal hypocrisies while its blinded hero uses the only weapons available to him in order to protect what he considers to be worth protecting. 


The Swordsman streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival. Now available in the UK on digital download courtesy of Blue Finch Films!

International trailer (English subtitles)