Thursday, July 4, 2024

The Fight for Freedom: Escape (2024) Review

Directed by Lee Jong-pil

Notable Cast: Lee Je-hoon, Koo Kyo-hwan, Hong Xa-bin, Seo Hyun-woo, Song Kang, Esom, Shin Hyun-ji, Lee Ho-jung, Jang Yo-hoon

"I'm going there to fail as much as I desire." - Lim Kyu-nam

Relations between North and South Korea have been explored via cinematic offerings for as long as the tensions began in real life. There have been many gems, some hidden and others praised universally, for the portrayal and explorations on-screen that highlight the intricacies and nuances between two very different countries and the powers that be, which ultimately shape how the citizens of each nation exist. If you want to see any films on this topic, you don't have to dig far. South Korea has been putting out titles for as long as I can remember, and a quick online search will give you an entire landscape of outings to explore. I will admit sometimes these films range in quality, and almost always, they have a very nationalistic leaning, which is to be expected to an extent, and Escape is no different in that regard. It sings its own praises quite loudly, but being a thrill ride that is meant to entertain first and foremost, this movie excels at delivering the goods. Escape is a taut thriller that keeps the tensions mounting to anxiety-inducing levels.

Lim Kyu-nam is a solider for the North Korean Army, a sergeant in fact, who is celebrating 10 years of required military service and is planning to retire to return to a normal life. His comrades in the service seem to look up to him and he becomes honored by some high-ranking officials. Little do they know that Lim has been planning the quickest escape route possible to book it on foot to the South to defect himself for a better life. He spends every night chiseling away at progressing further and further towards his escape to freedom. That is essentially it for Escape, where the plot is the titular action and not a whole lot more, but thankfully it works quite well. The characters here are developed by the dialogue throughout and the small moments where we are blessed with a few minutes to breathe as the audience. Lim is a determined individual and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. I love seeing his fascination with South Korea be shown, such a fine tuning his radio just enough to pick up on a South Korean station that he likes to listen to quietly when he is on rotation in the watchtower. The song "Yanghwa BRDG" by pop artist Zion.T being a part of Lim's life brought me so much joy as I personally love that song and it took me back, but I digress. He has a friend (Hong Xa-bin) accompanying him on this mission. These two find themselves in some deep trouble when they are found out. I will only delve a little beyond this, but the thrills along the way and the small but impacting action sequences lend themselves excellently to the drama at hand. I found myself so invested in what was going on that I got swept away by nearly every moment that happened. It is an emotional journey that becomes too heavy-handed at times, but the acting is sincere and felt genuine enough to me that I could overlook some of the shortcomings.


The production value here is top-notch. A lot of the film shot at night and really comes to life thanks to cinematographer Kim Sung-an, who worked with Lee Won-tae on The Devil's Deal and Lee Jeong-beom on Jo Pi-ho: The Dawning Rage. The guy has become an expert on framing thrilling sequences and drenching his works in atmosphere and his work here is of the same high quality. The way he shoots the darkened fields at night, with the rain pouring down and the characters being illuminated only by the spotlights from the watchtowers, it's just a chef's kiss sort of reaction. So many great and memorable shots throughout and again many sequences that will live on in my mind. There is a particular moment where there are four people fighting in a jeep as it begins to go off-road that really took me by surprise. The film doesn't shy away from showing blood onscreen which I think a lot of films in this genre try to steer clear of. I think the small attention to detail helps to elevate the action unfolding and immerse one within the world being depicted. Of course on the other hand, there are several moments where the bullets seem to be flying far and hitting nothing, but I think this is an unfortunate staple of many action films that I have sadly gotten used to over the years. It isn't one-hundred percent perfect, but again, I got really swept away by what was happening along the way.

In terms of the characters, I think there are some things that are great, and other things that seem to be swept under the rug, meaning they are only briefly touched on and then sort of forgotten. The bad guy of the show, Lee Hyun-sang, played with great eccentricities by Koo Kyo-hwan, really impressed me. I like the way he expresses with his face, his quirky and strange laugh, and the fact that he lets his emotions dictate his every move, all the while being an extremely high-ranking officer. He represses himself in many ways, and in fact is hiding his sexuality from every one around him. He has a relationship with another man, which I don't wish to spoil plot details or revelations for that matter, but it felt really brief and almost like it was underdeveloped. I think it may have been trying to say he must repress himself for that is the fate of men like him in the North, but it could perhaps not be that deep and just thinly written. Also while I loved seeing actress Esom get a really cool cameo, which again I won't spoil where she is in the film, I do think maybe that moment could've been more impacting if it were done by someone less famous. Because of her being such a high profile talent, you naturally expect more to come of her role, but it sort of just comes and goes and left me feeling perplexed in the moment. Still her addition is certainly welcome, but again can't help but feel that there could've been more to do with her in the end.


At the end of the day, Escape is a big ole' loud piece of nationalistic pride in the form of an entertaining action thriller, but I'm all here for it. I had a ton of fun watching this and got really invested in Lim Kyu-nam's journey to freedom. It is all pretty predictable, and the mileage will vary depending on who is watching, but there is a lot to like here for those looking for a good time and an entertaining action thriller. Again, some moments are just so tense that I get chills. It's a flawed film for certain, but I adored it and can't wait to see it again in the future. This gets a solid recommendation for the right crowd. If you are a fan of Korean thrillers, there is a lot here to love.

Written by Josh Parmer

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