Ransomed | aka Unofficial Operation (2023) Review

Ransomed | aka Unofficial Operation (2023) Review

“Ransomed” Theatrical Poster

Director: Kim Seong-Hun
Cast: Ha Jung-Woo, Ju Ji-Hoon, Kim Eung-Soo, Park Hyuk-Kwon, Im Hyeong-gook, Burn Gorman, Marcin Dorocinski, Nisrine Adam, Faycal Zeglat
Running Time: 132 min.

By Paul Bramhall

There’s been a new kind of genre offering that’s emerged in Chinese cinema over the last 5 years, one which usually involves its military being sent overseas to rescue its citizens from troubled lands (translated: somewhere in Africa or the Middle East). Usually framed as bombastic action flicks, it was Wu Jing who could be argued to have set the template with 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, then Dante Lam got in on the action with 2018’s Operation Red Sea, and Jackie Chan did the double thanks to 2020’s Vanguard and 2023’s Hidden Strike. However within this already somewhat limited genre there’s recently emerged an even more niche take on such stories, one which basically uses the same framework, but instead it pits diplomats as either the ones tasked with rescuing, or the ones who need to be rescued. I call it the ‘diplomat in peril overseas’ subgenre.

Korea has been leading the charge with this one, thanks to Ryoo Seung-wan’s 2021 production Escape from Mogadishu, which sees diplomats from North and South Korea attempting to escape the outbreak of civil war in Somalia. The Point Men followed in 2022, which sees a diplomat sent to the Middle East to negotiate the release of Korean hostages being held in Afghanistan. Ensuring the momentum keeps going, in 2023 Ransomed was released (pun intended), which casts Ha Jung-woo (Ashfall, Take Point) as a diplomat tasked with rescuing another diplomat in Lebanon. It’s a diplomat double whammy. Bridging the divide between the subgenre and the broader rescue productions mentioned, is that in an overwhelming number of them its Morocco standing in for whatever war-torn part of the world the story takes place in, and here it’s on duty representing 1980’s Beirut. 

What’s also specific to the ‘diplomat in peril overseas’ subgenre that Korea’s become specialised in (although I should point out China also got in on the action with 2022’s Home Coming), is that the stories are based on real events. In this case, it involves the story of Korean diplomat Do Chae-sung (played in the movie by Im Hyeong-gook – Hunt, Emergency Declaration), who was taken hostage in 1986 as the Lebanese Civil War raged between Christian and Islamic factions. However with the constant power shifts amongst the various militias, he was ultimately lost in the mix and essentially forgotten about, until he was able to make contact with Korea almost 2 years later.

Despite it being less than 2 years, South Korea had drastically changed by the time it was 1988. Army general Chun Doo-hwan, who had named himself president in a military coup in 1980, was finally removed from power in 1987, making way for the first free parliamentary elections the following year. To top it off, Seoul was hosting the 1988 Olympics, a landmark moment that the country saw as an opportunity to step out of the shadows of dictatorship it had been in for almost 30 years, and present itself as a player on the world stage. Similar to the likes of Seoul Vibe from the year prior, the events in Ransomed also unfold in the months leading up to the Olympics, with the Foreign Services department using the political tensions of the time as an excuse to handle the mission to recuse Hyeong-gook themselves.

Disgruntled at the fact he was overlooked for a promotion to be stationed at Korea’s London embassy, it’s Ha Jung-woo who’s offered the task of heading to Beirut and bringing Hyeong-gook back, believing that if he accomplishes the mission with flying colours, it’ll put him in contention to be stationed in America. However the fact that it’s not an official government operation sees him having to navigate various back channels, from a CIA intermediary played by Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim, The Dark Knight Rises), to a Swiss art dealer who has connections on the ground in Lebanon, played by Marcin Dorocinski (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Mission of Honor). The good news is such casting means that the foreign acting talent onboard for Ransomed all put in solid performances, which as any fans of Asian cinema will know, should never be taken as a given.

The not so good news is that Jung-woo always seems to struggle to inject any kind of nuance into his English line delivery. As an actor he’s in some of my favorite slices of Korean cinema – My Dear Enemy, The Yellow Sea, and The Handmaiden to name just a few – so it pains me to say I gave up watching the Netflix series Narco-Saints because his English heavy line delivery just wasn’t cutting it. Here the issue is the same, so it’s a relief once he arrives in Beirut, and ends up in the taxi of Lebanon’s only Korean cabbie (which yes, requires an unfathomable suspension of disbelief). Played by Ju Ji-hoon (Project Silence, Asura: City of Madness), Ransomed reunites the pair after they starred together in the 2 Along With the Gods movies from 2017 (The Two Worlds) and 2018 (The Last 49 Days). 

A mischievous scammer out to make a dollar any way he can, the pairing of frazzled diplomat and streetwise taxi driver essentially turns Ransomed into a mildly comedic buddy movie, almost as if it’s not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. What’s surprising is that the director and scriptwriter at the helm is Kim Seong-hun, who in recent years is most well-known for creating the zombie series Kingdom. Prior to working with the undead Seung-hun had directed Jung-woo before in 2016’s Tunnel, and was responsible for the 2013 classic A Hard Day, which has spawned multiple remakes in other Asian territories. The elephant in the room though is that Seong-hun’s feature length spin-off of Kingdom that he directed in 2021, Ashin of the North, was a lamentable dud. Unfortunately, it’s his most recent feature length outing that Ransomed shares most in common with, proving to be two missteps in a row. 

Much like Escape from Mogadishu, the circumstances that Ransomed takes place in are far more interesting than anything that happens onscreen, and as an audience our investment in seeing Hyeong-gook rescued is remarkably low since he barely has any screen time (and even fewer lines). The lack of characterisation stretches to the 2 leads, with Jung-woo’s sole character motivation being to get stationed in a desirable overseas location, which only serves to make him feel rather one-dimensional and flat. In fact everything feels just a little short of the target, with comedic moments frequently missing the mark, and the action feeling largely perfunctory and uninspired. Even soundtrack composer Mowg (The Childe, Miss Baek), who can always be relied on to deliver a solid score, clocks in a terminally repetitive electronic drone which doesn’t just fail to match whatever action is onscreen, it actively drains the life out of it.

Perhaps most regrettably, rather than simply limp to its finish, Seong-hun crafts a bizarrely overstated airport set finale that’s full of unearned and slightly awkward emotion, delivered in such a ham-fisted way it threatens to become laughable. The circumstances that play out also result in what’s essentially a staggered repeat of the final scene involving different characters arriving back in Korea, which only results in the already lengthy 132-minute runtime feeling more protracted than it needs to be. Sometimes less is more, and the jarring tonal shifts from mild comedy, to tensionless thriller, to histrionic-lite drama simply fails to engage in any kind of meaningful way.

While the ‘diplomat in peril overseas’ subgenre may still be a new one on the block, there’s no denying the fact that none of them have lived up to their promises, perhaps proving that casting government officials as main characters, even if they are diplomats, simply doesn’t make for engaging cinema. With a predictable plot and a lacklustre pace, Ransomed is ultimately a mediocre exercise in filmmaking, made only more frustrating by the fact it’s dealing with such an interesting moment in Korean history.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10