Producers: Kang Hye-jung, Ryoo Seung-wan, Kim Yong-hwa and Cho Sung-min   Director: Ryoo Seung-wan   Screenplay: Ryoo Seung-wan   Cast: Kim Yoon-seok, Jo In-sung, Heo Joon-hu, Koo Kyo-hwan, Kim So-jin, Joung Man-sik, Kim Jae-hwa. Park Gyeong-hye, Peter Kawa and Andrew Naganga Kimani   Distributor: Go Well USA

Grade: B+

Imagine a Korean version of “Argo” set in the dangerous territory of “Black Hawk Down,” and you’ll have some idea of “Escape from Mogadishu,” a tense and exciting tale of a collaboration between North and South Korean diplomats stationed in Somalia in 1990. 

At the time both countries were courting the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, who had seized power in a 1969 military coup.  The two Koreas were seeking his support for U.N. membership for one or the other.  By the 1980s, however, resistance to Barre’s increasingly repressive rule was mounting in the country, and in December, 1990, rebel forces forced their way into the capital of Mogadishu.  Fighting ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Barre regime the following month, and he was forced into exile.

Ryoo Seung-wan’s film is set during that eventful December.  It begins by sketching, in some darkly humorous sequences, the rivalry between the two diplomatic missions, South Korea represented by long-suffering Han Sin-seong (Kim Yoon-seok) and his surly “counselor,” or intelligence officer Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung) and the North by severe Rim Yong-su (Koo Kyo-hwan) and his determined counselor Tae Joon-ki (Heo Joon-hu).  In the latest encounter, sad-sack Han has been outmaneuvered by Rim, who has thugs attack his car en route to a meeting with Barre, preventing the conference despite Kang’s bravado.

The film then concentrates on the fear that descends on both embassies as rebel forces invade the capital and Barre’s military crumbles.  The emphasis is on the debate among the South Koreans—Han, Kang and terrified Secretary Gong Soo-cheol  Joung Man-sik)—about what they should do, especially after their driver Swama (Andrew Naganga Kimani) is beaten to death and a Somali officer (Peter Kawa) threatens them.  Eventually they purchase a detail of soldiers to serve as security.

Matters are even less hopeful for the North Koreans, who are forced to flee their embassy.  They make it to their rivals’ compound and request admittance despite the fact that both their countries have forbidden any such collaboration.  Han eventually admits them, though Kang is suspicious of their intent (and takes advantage of the situation in an underhanded way. 

But ultimately Rim and his people come to trust the South Koreans to some extent—in a grimly funny dinner scene, they eventually overcome the suspicion that their food has been poisoned—and the two ambassadors reach a modus vivendi, agreeing to work together to arrange an escape.  That involves contacting the embassies of other, more powerful countries, to seek help, and they succeed in gaining assistance from the Italians.

But there’s a catch: they must get everyone to the Italian compound in time for a flight out of the country.  The solution is to assemble a convoy of beaten-up cars, cover them with anything they can find, from metal plates to books, and then speed through the city’s streets, all the time pursued by military armored vehicles with machine guns spraying bullets at them.  The chase scene is brilliantly fashioned by Ryoo, cinematographer Choi Young-hwan and editor Lee Gang-hee, making a fitting capstone to the picture.  The pulsating score by Bang Jun-suk adds further punch to the frantic dash.

Yet a coda points up that the two sides’ alliance but abruptly cease when they’re out of danger, the wall between their nations still supposedly impenetrable.

The cast is fine down the line, with Kim anchoring things as the rascally but skilled Han and Jo preening as the would-be hero Kang.  As the undemonstrative Rim, Koo has less to do, but is impressively stoic, even when weakened by a lack of insulin for his diabetes.

“Escape from Mogadishu” is undoubtedly intended as a sort of cinematic olive branch to North Korea, suggesting that South and North have cooperated in the past and could again.  But it’s unlikely that North Koreans would see the portrayal of the South Koreans as heroic figures as acceptable.  Indeed, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to see it at all. But those of us not prevented from viewing it by political circumstances should find it a genuinely gripping fact-based thriller, told with flair.