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Lee Je-hoon has to play the part of a loyal North Korean soldier in order to "Escape."

You may know this: The demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea is a vibrant wildlife preserve, with dozens of endangered species finding a home in the rivers, mountains, and swampland. Escape, which opens at the AMC Grapevine Mills this weekend, begins with Korean People’s Army Sgt. Lim Kyu-nam (Lee Je-hoon) attempting to defect to the south when his flight is thwarted by a wild boar that sets off a landmine. Not one to waste good food, Lim returns to his military base with the boar and spit-roasts the animal so that he can give his men a decent meal for once. It’s not to be, as his superior officers commandeer the boar, which only reinforces his desire to be free.

We learn that Lim has been planning his defection for some time, and his initial attempt is witnessed by Cpl. Kim Dong-hyuk (Hong Xa-bin), who begs him to come along. When they’re caught on a subsequent try, the young corporal bravely takes the fall and lies that he was the only one trying to defect, and that the sergeant was arresting him. Becoming a hero of the state does not change Lim’s plans, because after 10 years of patrolling the border close enough to pick up the radio broadcasts of K-pop from the other side, he’s ready to go down south and make his own life.

This is the first movie directed by Lee Jong-pil to make it to our shores, although he played a police detective in The Man From Nowhere. He makes good use of the wilds of the DMZ as a setting for the action sequences, and when Lim finds an opportunity to break the corporal out of prison, it leads to an excellent four-way fight in a moving car after two of the prison officials realize what they’re up to.

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The movie also has the benefit of a complicated villain in Ri Hyun-sang (Koo Kyo-hwan), an old friend of Lim’s who works for the DPRK catching deserters. A guy who does cheap magic tricks and carries himself like he knows everything that everybody is hiding — which he just might — Ri is also secretly gay and a frustrated concert pianist. The climactic confrontation between Ri and Lim at the South Korean border is overly drawn out, but the film receives a boost every time the villain appears, whether he’s pining over his ex-boyfriend (Song Kang), playing Rachmaninov like a competition winner who’s fallen out of practice, or summarily executing his own soldiers when they fail to capture the defectors. His presence gives some extra spice to this story of a man who’s making his personal bid for freedom. On this Fourth of July weekend, that’s worth considering.

Escape
Starring Lee Je-hoon and Koo Kyo-hwan. Directed by Lee Jong-pil. Written by Kwon Seong-hwi and Kim Woo-geun. Not rated.

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