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Escape

The high-concept South Korean army thriller “Escape” clocks in at a swift 94 minutes long. It could have easily gone on longer. There’s simultaneously too much and not enough action in this intriguing, but underdeveloped story about a North Korean defector who, after ten years of military service, flees to South Korea. He’s pursued by an obsessed North Korean National Security officer, who provides some tension. Contextualizing flashbacks also add something to this otherwise straightforward chase narrative, even if those tangential asides stall dramatic momentum long enough to make one wonder why there’s either not much more or less where they came from.

“Escape” begins with some promise. We meet hyper-focused North Korean Sergeant Lim Kyu-nam (Lee Je-hoon) as he sneaks out of his barracks in the dead of night, shimmies past some guards, and plants a few stakes on the way to the Military Demarcation Line. Lim plotted a safe course through a literal mine field, and his path became a little clearer every night. He returns to base, where he’s confronted by a few reminders of why he must take off and soon. 

Deserters get shot, as a scare video reminds Lim and his fellow soldiers, but family and freedom await in South Korea, as anxious comrade Kim Dong-hyuk (Hong Xa-bin) reminds Lim. Kim’s seen Lim at work and wants to go South, too, since “Tomorrow is my mom’s birthday. I miss her terribly.” They soon get caught, and Kim takes the blame. That’s about the same time when Lim’s original plans go out the window, forcing him to improvise his way toward freedom. The implacable Field Officer Li Hyun-sang (Koo Kyo-hwan) unexpectedly promotes him for detaining Kim. There’s an award ceremony for Lim, which gives him a perfect opportunity to, well, you know.

It’s sometimes thrilling to see Lim struggling to get his bearings after his initial plans fall through. His disorientation goes against what little we know about his character, based on the old “Tenacious Explorer Armundsen” boy’s adventure paperback that he cherishes and a handful of action-intensive establishing scenes. In these early scenes, we see Lim run, plot, and bide his time. Then, we see him struggle to figure out what to do when he’s heaped with praise that he hasn’t earned. Lim credits Li with his success during an unrehearsed speech, and in doing so, he inadvertently gives the military the sort of tribute it expects. Then Lim finds another opportunity to get away.

Problems first arise when Li enters Lim’s story. We learn about Li through a handful of scenes that contrast Lim with his vigilant pursuer, a threadbare antagonist whose compulsive need to stop Lim overcompensates for some things. Unfortunately, Lee’s performance as Li doesn’t express much beyond an exaggerated twitchiness, which makes it hard to care when he liberally applies dramatic shorthand to Li’s scenes. For example, Li plays the piano for his fellow officers at Lim’s award reception, which lays the foundation for a couple of scenes about Li’s thwarted ambitions. Unfortunately, those scenes indicate more than they express about what’s wrong with Li, who, like a lot of genre movie villains, chases after whoever dares to pursue their dreams.

Kim’s backstory also seems unconvincing, though not because it provides insufficient explanations for his character. Rather, as with Li and his musical aspirations, Kim often feels like an afterthought crammed into Lim’s otherwise unbalanced story, like a wad of napkins used to balance a wobbly card table. Both Kim and Li’s scenes are meant to pull Lim into unexpected and sometimes frustrating tangents, which would be more forgivable if their respective performances were as compelling. It also doesn’t help that the movie’s action scenes often seem more covered than directed, despite some breakneck pacing and dynamic camerawork. Still, “Escape” takes too much time and energy away from Lim’s story whenever anyone but Lim surveys or works their way through their baggage.

It’s hard to care about superficially interesting characters when it’s unclear if you must know more about what psychologically motivates them. Maybe there’s simply not enough action in “Escape,” which could stand in for whatever else is missing from Lim’s story. Then again, while it’s tempting to say that less could have been more here, it seems just as likely that more melodrama would have made a positive difference. In an early scene, Supreme Leader Kim encourages the troops, through a recorded message, to watch each other vigilantly, even though “deserters do not exist in my book.” “Escape” finds an interesting subject in that ambiguous line, but never examines it closely enough to convey what it’s like to be invisible while in service to your own country.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Escape movie poster

Escape (2024)

Cast

Lee Je-hoon as Lim Kyu-nam

Hong Xa-bin as Kim Dong-hyuk

Koo Kyo-hwan as Li Hyun-sang

Director

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