Ransomed (2023) Review – Voices From The Balcony

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Ransomed Poster

Ransomed opens with a note saying the film is based on actual events but the characters and specific events in the film are fictional. The facts are that in 1986, Do Chae-sung, a second secretary of the Korean embassy in Beruit was kidnapped. He was eventually released in 1987 after the government paid a ransom alleged to be several million dollars for his release.

In the movie, the fictional diplomat Oh Jae-soek is taken from his car by gunmen and seemingly disappears without a trace. Then one night while sitting brooding over his lack of career advancement a foreign ministry official Lee Min-joon (Ha Jung-woo, The Closet, Ashfall) gets a call from someone claiming to be the missing official. It seems dubious, but the caller did know the agency’s verification code.

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At this point in time, South Korea was still basically a dictatorship with the various government agencies viewing for influence and power. That means friction between the diplomatic wing of the government and the intelligence service, the KCIA. There are further complications in the form of the Korean government’s policy of not paying ransoms and a desire to avoid potential embarrassment right before a landmark election and the Seoul Olympics. Any attempt to free Oh Jae-soek will have to be strictly unofficial.

Director Seong Hun Kim (Kingdom, Tunnel) and writers Kim Jung-Yeon and Jung-mi Yeo (Bird That Doesn’t Cry, Geonmangjeung) speed run through much of this, and by the half-hour mark Min-joon has agreed to deliver the ransom in return for a posting in the US or UK if he manages to complete the mission and is landing in Beirut and the film changes from a political drama into an action film, as corrupt Lebanese security agents decide to steal the ransom money.

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Running from them, Min-joon manages to jump into a taxi driven by Pan-soo (Ju Ji-Hoon, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds, The Spy Gone North) the only Korean cab driver in Lebanon. After the first chase, he’s not interested in getting shot at a second time. But he realizes that helping the Foreign Service could help him get a visa to the US and agrees to help. Our hero is warned that Pan-soo is a con artist, something viewers will have already figured out. But he doesn’t have any other options but to deal with him and hope for the best.

From here out Ransomed becomes a buddy adventure comedy with these two very different men essentially becoming each other’s ticket to America. That’s if they don’t double-cross each other or manage to get themselves killed first. And ending up dead is a very strong possibility as every criminal gang and militia in Beirut wants to get their hands on the ransom money. And the political machinations back in Seoul may be as dangerous as anything on the ground in Lebanon.

This may sound a bit like last year’s Escape From Mogadishu, which was also “inspired” by true events concerning Korean diplomats fleeing a country in the midst of a civil war with the help of unlikely allies. Ransomed however is more action-oriented and less interested in its characters than that film. The action scenes are well done with multiple car chases, a run-in with wild dogs, and an escape via ropes from a rooftop. There’s even a rock fight thrown in for good measure.

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Unfortunately, at two hours and twelve minutes, Ransomed runs too long and its lack of character development drags it down. The two leads are badly underdeveloped and everyone else simply feels like they’re more of a plot device than an actual character. For example, Pan-soo’s girlfriend Layla (Nisrine Adam, Operation Red Sea, Occupation: Killer) seems like her character exists only to shame him into a particular decision.

The result is a film that delivers some nicely staged action scenes that never manage to reach their potential due to the viewer’s lack of investment in the characters. Worse, between those scenes Ransomed occasionally had trouble holding my interest. It’s watchable, but Seong Hun Kim is capable of much better.

Ransomed was released in South Korean theaters on August 2nd. Well Go USA released it today, August 4th to theaters in the US and Canada.