Filed in: Direction, Featured, Film, For Your Consideration, Interviews

For Your Consideration: Korean Filmmaker Seung-wan Ryoo Talks about Escape from Mogadishu

December 9, 2021 08:45 | By
Escape from Mogadishu

A scene from Escape from Mogadishu

South Korea has always been a proponent for great genre filmmaking, and just great filmmaking in general. And yet, up until Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was nominated for International Feature at the Oscars and went on to win Best Picture two years back, no other Korean film has ever been nominated for an Oscar. It’s more than just a shame. It’s truly an injustice, because Korean filmmakers like Directors Bong and Park Chan-wook and others are constantly proving their mettle for creating completely original cinema unlike anything produced in Hollywood.

That is the case with Seung-wan Ryoo’s Escape from Mogadishu, which has been honored as South Korea’s selection to the 94th Academy Awards in the International Feature category. The film takes place in Somalia in 1991 where representatives from both North and South Korea are vying to get admitted to the United Nations, and African countries like Somalia are key in the voting. Unfortunately, this campaigning is happening just as civil war is breaking out between the government and rebels, leaving reps from both countries stranded in the country, desperately trying to get out.

Escape from Mogadishu is much more than a dry historical drama, because Director Ryoo makes the film far more entertaining with large set pieces that would not be out of place in bigger Hollywood films, and the film would be of particular interest to those who enjoyed Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in 2001. Although that film may have been a small influence for Ryoo, in this case, those trying to survive and get out of Somalia are non-military personnel and their families, which also makes the film far more grounded and relatable.

Below the Line got on Zoom with Director Ryoo earlier this week for the following conversation.

Ryoo-Seung-wan

Ryoo Seung-wan

Below the Line: I’m not sure how much of this story is true or not, but can you talk about how you discovered it or decided to make a movie about it?

Seung-wan Ryoo: The overall framework of what you see in the film did actually happen in real life. There were a lot of employees in the North Korean and South Korean embassies in Somalia, because they were trying to court votes to join the UN. It’s true that they were based in Somalia and then the civil war erupted, and they were isolated and had to join forces to escape out of the country. In order to convey all of that within the two-hour running time of the film, we did have to fictionalize some of the events.

So, there are two reasons why I wanted to tell this story. On the surface, this film seems to deal with a civil war, and you’ve seen this in several other Hollywood films, as well. But if you look underneath the surface, you’ll realize that this story is something that could only be told by Koreans. The irony and the dilemma entrenched in the story really captivated me. As a lot of people know, Korea was a nation of one people, but because of the Cold War, there was a civil war that erupted in the 50s, and we were divided into two nations, and that division continues on to this day. The fact that diplomats from two nations that were divided in the past, all had to come together in the ’90s, because of another civil war felt very ironic to me. Of course, there was a lot of dilemma within that story, so that’s what really fascinated me.

And the second point of interest was a more personal one where I wanted to explore how people without military training, without the military capacity to deal with the situation, people who are not your conventional heroes, what would they go through if they are involved in this war? What is the fear and anxiety these people would feel internally going through this situation? I thought that this could provide an extremely suspenseful, intense experience for the audience to kind of go through the thoughts and emotions that these civilians would experience in such an extreme situation. Ordinary people going through extraordinary moments is what really captivated me to this story and material.

BTL: 1991 was only 30 years ago, so there must have been some people who were there and still alive. Did you want to meet with them or talk to them as research before writing this script?

Ryoo:  I did meet with the person who Ambassador Han, our main character, is based on, and my crew members also met with some of the employees who were working at the embassy at the time. We also reached out to other diplomats who were in different African countries around the ’80s and ’90s to conduct our research. What was really unfortunate was [we] could not meet any of the diplomats or the employees who were a part of the North Korean delegation at the time.

BTL: This is a really interesting production because you actually did shoot mostly in Morocco but partially in Mogadishu, I think?

Ryoo: The entire film was actually shot in Morocco. There is a travel ban to all South Koreans to Somalia, so even to this day, we are not legally allowed to travel to the country. But there are a couple international students in Korea who are from Somalia, so we were able to contact them. One of the students, his father is the head of the traffic commission in Somalia, so we were like, “Can you please call your dad to ask him about the story and what’s going on in that country?”

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BTL: What was involved with creating 1991 Somalia in Morocco? I feel like at least the street scene in front of the embassy could have been built on a big stage as well, or was it all on location and then dressed up accordingly?

Ryoo: For us, we realized that recreating ‘90s Somalia right now is basically like shooting on the moon, at this point. We faced a lot of frustrations during the research process, and as I mentioned before, we couldn’t even visit Somalia. We had a little understanding of other African countries as well, so we began by collecting any materials that we could get our hands on and analyzing those materials. 

In the beginning of our research process, in terms of the architecture and the culture of Somalia — because Kenya is right next to Somalia, Kenya seemed to be the most similar country. The issue was the traffic direction in Kenya follows the British system, so  everything was in reverse. But as you can see in the film, car scenes are very important for the story, so to reverse everything, our budget did not allow that.  So we started analyzing the film Black Hawk Down, which is about the same location just three years prior to what we are dealing with. Because Morocco has had several film productions happen there, they already had capable crew members and high-quality equipment, so we all packed our bags and went to Morocco to visit some of those locations for Black Hawk Down.

But when we actually got there, we couldn’t see any of the things that we saw in the film. A lot of the locations were just empty lots, because they had worked their Hollywood magic even back then. So we felt like they were a bunch of frauds.

But thankfully, our location manager was an industry veteran, and he recommended that we visit a small port city called Asara. Asara is about seven hours away from Casablanca, and when we got there, we were really surprised to find very similar locations to what we have been seeing through photos and videos of Mogadishu. So I became quite sure that with our art department, if we set everything up, we can recreate ’90s Mogadishu at this city.

Three months before we started shooting, we began setting things up at that location. When we started shooting, an employee from the Somalia embassy actually came to visit set. That employee told our producer that if you guys are shooting a film about Mogadishu, you have found the best place to do that.

And for our car chase scenes, there are multiple camera cars, obviously, but one of the drivers was actually a pilot during the Somali Civil War. He was talking to us about what it was like while shooting the car chasing scene, and he felt that he was just there. He felt like we had recreated it perfectly, and it felt great to hear that.

The scene you mentioned about the downtown when civil war erupts, and you see the large crowds, none of that was visual effects. They were actually all extras and our team set everything up, especially the fire, the bullets, the debris, the dust and dirt, all of that was real, especially in terms of the ground. We covered the ground with dirt so that it would resemble what it was actually like during that time. We used a lot of practical effects that all my artists went to set-up, so they were pretty much all real.

BTL: Other than the actors, how many people did you bring over to Korea for your crew, as far as heads of department? As you mentioned, Morocco has a lot of great crew since they’ve made a lot of big movies there, but how many Koreans did you bring over with you?

Ryoo: Most of the crew members, including the assistants, were Koreans, who traveled to Morocco to shoot with us, aside from the youngest members of the crew, even until like the third, they were all Korean crew members.

The grip team, the art department, they were all from Korea, and if we had the production designer, we would have a Korean production designer and then we would have a Moroccan art director, who would work together to create everything. So the core crew members and the heads of departments were all Koreans, but the film would have been impossible without the Moroccan crew that we worked with.

Mogadishu

BTL: I’m glad you mentioned the car chases, because I thought those were quite ingenious, especially how they covered the cars with books to use as bullet-proofing. I’m not sure if that was something that really happened, but it was a great idea anyway.

Ryoo: In reality, they did not have any devices to arm their car with, and during that whole trek, getting attacked from the rebels and the government forces, there was only one casualty in reality. When I actually learned that there was only one casualty during that whole trek, it just felt like a miracle. It was like Moses splitting the waters.

The film had been following a pretty realistic, naturalistic tone throughout, but to end with such a miraculous event, I didn’t really know how to make the audience, who is not aware of the historical reality, how to make them understand and accept that this is actually real. That felt like a hallmark to me as a director, so I decided to step into the character’s shoes and think about how they would feel trying to overcome this incident. Korean and North Korean men are, to this day, trained in the military, so most men are aware that sandbags are bulletproof. I also came across records that say that it’s difficult for bullets to tear through thick phone books

But this is not really helpful in reality, because one YouTuber, after watching Mogadishu shot a phonebook with an AK gun, and it obviously ripped through the book, so if anyone were to go through this in reality, I recommend sandbags.

BTL: I’ll keep that in mind if I ever need to get out of New York fast. I assume you went back to Korea to do the post, so I wanted to ask about your approach to the music. It’s a great score and you do include a bit of regional music which might have been heard in those times. Did you work with a composer whom you had worked with before?

Ryoo: The composer for this film, Jun-seok Bang, worked with me on multiple films, including Crying Fist, City of Violence, Veteran, The Battleship Island, so we were very familiar.

There were two large directions that we wanted to take with the music. One was capturing the period of the time and one was capturing the location, the specialty of Africa at the time. The issue was, although we shot everything in Morocco, we couldn’t do the music in Africa, as well. One huge practical issue that we came across was that the pandemic began when we started our post-production, so it was difficult for African musicians to come to Korea to work on the music. Thankfully, our production succeeded in gathering African musicians who live in Korea who play African music, so we were able to work with African musicians who work with percussion instruments specific to Africa. So we were fortunate to be able to do that.

I really wanted to use Somali music that was popular at that time, and thankfully, we were able to find the person who manages the copyright for that music. If you see in the movie, the music that the rebels play on the radio here and there throughout the film, you’ll find glimpses of Somali music just seeped into the film. I really wanted to use Billy Joel‘s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which was at the top of the Billboard charts at the time, but it was too pricey, so we couldn’t use it.

BTL: My last question is kind of general, but I’m curious how the Korean film industry has been dealing with COVID in terms of production?

Ryoo: We have various productions going on right now. A lot of filmmakers and artists are still burning with that creative passion to do their work, so a lot of them are working on set, getting COVID tests on a regular basis. Everyone’s noses are super raw from all the swabbing, but we are following safety protocols on set. The Korean film industry has never stopped creating films throughout the pandemic.  But it is pretty serious in terms of the theater situation, now that the pandemic has been going on for two years. In the beginning, people didn’t go to the theaters, just to be safe and stay away from COVID, but now that we’re in our second year, there is now a new generation of young people who are just very unfamiliar with the movie theater experience.

Of course, we have this new influx of all these OTT platforms, including Netflix, and so now the audience is finding that it’s more comfortable to watch films and TV shows in their own homes through these platforms. I think, because of that, we are now in a time where films made for these theatrical experiences are more important than ever before.

Of course, there are many great works that you can see on these platforms, but I think going to the movie theater, it means you are investing a couple hours of your life to completely experience a different world and have this singular experience, and I think that’s why more filmmakers these days need to think about how we can create more captivating films and create this very special experience for the viewers.

Escape from Mogadishu is available to rent on most digital platforms including YouTube, AppleTV, Amazon Prime Video, and others.

All photos courtesy and copyright Well Go USA, Inc.