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Film Review: Escape (2024) by Lee Jong-pil

"Kyu-nam, do you think the South will be paradise?"

The dynamic between the two Koreas is a very unique one globally, and one that has been mined cinematically in varying manners over the decades to varying degrees of success. It has provided the audiences with entertaining productions that give a glimpse into this relationship to an otherwise unaware populace, while also giving the makers box-office success, with works like “”, “: Joint Security Area”, “Taegukgi” and “” still sitting comfortably as some of the highest grossing Korean films of all time. Attempting to ride the same wave of success is director , of “” fame, who places the narrative squarely in the De-Militarised Zone between the two countries.

” is released by WellGo USA

North Korean soldier Im Gyu-nam is counting the days down to his discharge, which is very close. The apparently model soldier, however, has secretly been going out of the barracks late into the night, mapping out the landmines in the nearby DMZ areas as he plans to defect to the South once he is done with his military duty. As the day of his discharge approaches, however, fellow soldier Dong-hyuk steals the map and tries to escape to the South, an act in which Gyu-nam too gets involved and gets seen as a hero for stopping Dong-hyuk. But when his superior and old friend, State Security Department officer Ri Hyun-sang recommends him to a higher post in the army on the same day of his discharge, and pouring rains mean the locations of the mapped landmines could change, Gyu-nam must make a run for the DMZ and towards his freedom today, with Hyun-sang hot on his trail.

Focusing the story entirely on North Korean soldiers, Lee Jong-pil does a number of things interestingly and differently to projects of this ilk. Firstly, he doesn't give in to the temptations of showing the socialist elements, the apparently impoverished nature of the North which South Korean cinema loves to exploit. The narrative gaze stays wholly focused within the military bases, making it about the soldiers and their lives within the Northern army. It is also successful in showing both the staunch nationalism of the Northern soldiers as well as the draw, for various reasons for various people, that life in the South has. 

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Another element that Lee explores, or at least tries to explore, is that of homosexuality in the North. This is a very interesting and daring direction for the feature, with quiet glances sharing unspoken feelings between Hyun-sang and an old flame, but Lee treats this as a throwaway subplot that doesn't get explored enough. Despite that, the correlation of Hyun-sang too, who is trying to thwart Gyu-nam's escape, trying to escape something of his own is not remiss and adds layers to the character and the narrative. A little more exposition in this direction, it must be said, would have helped, specially considering the relatively short runtime. The same can also be said for the band of people that literally pop up in the middle of the story as a deus ex machina, with little to no context around them. This is in fact true for characterization for most of the feature, which ends up being something that Lee isn't especially interested in, because he is eager to start the titular escape and the subsequent chase as quickly as he can.

And it is in this direction that “Escape” succeeds the most. Both Gyu-nam's attempts to run away as well as Hyun-sang's efforts to stop him in his tracks make up the majority of the runtime and these are very confidently and effectively realised. While the action direction isn't particularly strong, nor does the feature require it to be, Lee still manages to infuse the chase with much intrigue and thrill to make “Escape” an exciting and memorable ride. If “Samjin Company English Class” was wholly female-centric, Lee injects his latest work with enough testosterone and ample adrenaline that is sure to please the action thriller fans.

Said testosterone also comes from its very good-looking and very able stars, with both and delivering what is expected from the actors. Most of the story is seen through Im Gyu-nam's eyes and thus gives the actor ample moments to shine. Be it his resolute conviction in finding his way to the South or in his caring affection for his friend Dong-hyuk, Lee is more than capable of pulling it off. The same can also be said of Koo Kyo-hwan's portrayal, who finds himself in familiar territory, chasing runaway Korean soldiers once again after “D.P.”, only this time on the other side of the border.

Ri Hyun-sang is one character who does get just enough backstory and an arc to let Koo really sink his teeth into. Right from his introduction, putting on lip balm and smacking his lips in a room full of soldiers, to his caring nature towards Gyu-nam, his romantic angle and his disciplinarian army ways, Koo is an actor that demands your attention and makes Hyun-sang a character that ends up leaving the biggest impression. The same however cannot be said for as Dong-hyuk or popular tv actor , whose role ends up being a very brief cameo, as does the surprise cameo near the midway point, which merely serves as novelty than much purpose.

Making good use of the military bases and their indoors as well as the vast open spaces that are supposed to be the North Korean landscapes and the DMZ, “Escape” very much looks and feels the blockbuster it is trying to be. Some storytelling hiccups aside, it still ends up being a very entertaining, exciting and memorable chase, thanks in large parts to its two very efficient actors, that will likely end up being one of the better films to come out of South Korea this year, even if it may not do the blockbuster numbers that Lee Jong-pil might hope it does.

About the author

Rhythm Zaveri

Hello, my name is Rhythm Zaveri. For as long as I can remember, I've been watching movies, but my introduction to Asian cinema was old rental VHS copies of Bruce Lee films and some Shaw Bros. martial arts extravaganzas. But my interest in the cinema of the region really deepened when I was at university and got access to a massive range of VHS and DVDs of classic Japanese and Chinese titles in the library, and there has been no turning back since.

An avid collector of physical media, I would say Korean cinema really is my first choice, but I'll watch anything that is south-east Asian. I started contributing to Asian Movie Pulse in 2018 to share my love for Asian cinema in the form of my writings.

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