By Kim Boram
SEOUL, Aug. 11 (Yonhap) -- In his 2017 period action film "The Battleship Island," director Ryoo Seung-wan bragged about his effective use of large-scale action sets and the reproduction of a forced labor camp on Hashima Island during Imperial Japan's colonial occupation of Korea.
But the blockbuster, known as one of South Korea's biggest-budget films with about 27 billion won (US$23 million), was criticized for its distorted history, thin characters and overly-theatrical, melodramatic story lines.
Four years later, returning with the action film "Escape from Mogadishu," Ryoo said he tried not to repeat the failure that he experienced in making "The Battleship Island." His latest project is also based on a historical story. It is about diplomats in South and North Korean missions in Somalia cooperating to escape the country during the 1991 civil war.
"I've learned that I could fall into the trap of a spectacle when facing a far more intriguing story like 'Mogadishu,'" he said in an online media interview Tuesday. "I also understood that I need to maintain a certain distance from the story when I deal with such a spectacular incident or character."
Ryoo said he was thrilled by the South-North Korean breakout story behind "Mogadishu," which is full of emotional beats, intriguing characters and even eye-catching war scenes, just like "The Battleship Island."
But this time, he took a different approach, focusing on the emotions of characters facing grave danger, instead of portraying every dramatic moment and scene.
"It was hard for me to put everything I know into a two-hour film," the 47-year old filmmaker said. "I tried to present the choices of people in a hopeless situation, rather than telling a big story, like the relationship between a nation and its people."
In the movie, when his embassy is attacked by rioters, North Korean Ambassador Lim Yong-su (Huh Joon-ho) asks for help during the state of emergency from his South Korean counterpart Han Shin-sung (Kim Yun-seok) and moves to the South's mission with the other officials and their families.
The director said he refrained from depicting every miserable moment of the civil war or multiple attacks against the North Korean mission as he did not want to overuse provocative scenes.
"It's important to help viewers both experience the misery of the civil war in Somalia and feel the desperate efforts made by people in the Korean mission," he said. "This movie has so many spectacles. What I needed was to subtract things that hurt the balance."
However, he admitted that he had to add one thing to the climactic car chasing sequences of the film, because the reality was too dramatic to recount.
Before making their way to the Italian embassy, which had prepared a rescue plane for them, diplomats from North and South Korea bulletproof four cars with books and sandbags to fly down the war-torn streets of Mogadishu under a storm of gunfire.
The makeshift bulletproof cars help the group arrive at the destination with only one loss, which sounds implausible.
"In reality, they took the cars without any bulletproofing, but they lost only one member. It's unbelievable," he said. "The reality is more dramatic and theatrical than any film. So I had to tweak the reality, because I have to convince the viewers who don't know the truth."
Ryoo thanked South Korean movie fans for loving his latest movie despite the recent spike in COVID-19 infections.
"Mogadishu" has attracted a total of 1.8 million moviegoers as of Tuesday, becoming the most-watched Korean movie of 2021 so far.
"I'm so grateful that many people came out to the theater and gave positive reviews," he said. "I'm touched and encouraged by those comments and messages. Thank you."