Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, seems in many ways to be a film without a country.  Companies in such disparate areas as Germany, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan funded the movie.  The film was largely shot in China, the director is Russian, the cast is from all over Asia, and the spoken language is Mongolian.  It was Kazakhstan that submitted the film for nomination at the 2008 Academy Awards foreign film category, and it did manage to get a nomination.  Of course it still took months after it earned its nomination to finally get a release stateside, which is one of the many things about that Oscar category that’s annoying; if it were up to me a film would need to have an American release prior to its nomination like it would in every other category.  Still, it was worth the wait because Mongol, a film about the early life of Genghis Khan, does mostly deliver on what it promises.

            The film begins in 1171 with a nine year old Genghis Khan (Odnyam Odsuren), who was going by the name Temudjin at this point, being brought to select a future wife in order to solidify an alliance between his father’s tribe and another tribe.  Young Temudjin selects a girl named Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), but on the way home Temudjin’s father (Ba Sen) is poisoned by a rival tribe.  He returns to find that tribe pillaging his people and Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), the leader of this enemy tribe, threatens to kill Temudjin, but decides to wait until he’s older as per Mongolian custom.  Temudjin tries to flee but has an accident and is narrowly saved by another young tribal heir named Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar) who takes Temudjin in as a blood brother.  Temudjin eventually grows up (and is played as an adult by Tadanobu Asano) and returns to Borte’s home village to claim her as a wife.  Borte (now played by Khulan Chuluun) gladly goes with him, but is eventually kidnapped by the rival Merkit tribe. Temudjin has no choice but to return to Jamukha (now played by Honglei Sun) and beg him to send his men on a rescue mission.

             Mongol, the first of a planned trilogy about Genghis Khan, was clearly envisioned as a biographical epic in the vein of Spartacus or even Lawrence of Arabia.  Of course the film never reaches the heights of those examples, but I admired the effort nonetheless.  The film does have some awesome battles, but it never devolves into a total action movie along the lines of 300.  The movie is about 80% character growth and development and 20% kickass fighting, with a little romance thrown in for good balance.

            The Temudjin here is not the brutal dictator and ruthless fighter that many think him to be.  Rather, he’s depicted as a leader fairly generous to his men, at least compared to other tribal leaders of his time.  He’s a family man and a born romantic; of course he’s also a violent fighter.  This positive outlook is quite possibly the result of the particular period in Temudjin’s life that the film covers.  By the end of the film he has yet to invade China and the darker aspects of the character may yet be seen if Bodrov is ever given the opportunity to finish his trilogy.  For now he’s a mostly heroic figure within the standards of his society.

            The acting here for the most part is solid but not extraordinary, mainly just because the roles here aren’t spectacularly challenging.  Japanese actor Tadanobu Khulan certainly looks like Genghis Khan and he approaches the part with an appropriate passion.  Khulan Chuluun’s work as Temudjin’s wife is certainly impressive given that this is her first credited role; also impressive are the various child actors who play the characters in their early years.  Honglei Sun almost steals the show as an adult Jamukha.  All the actors should also be commended for working in Khan’s original Mongolian, which adds a nice authenticity to the whole affair.

            As far as I can tell, the movie is more historically accurate than not when it comes to the basic outline of Temudgin’s life, but it embellishes freely with the details.  Ultimately it feels more like it’s trying to tell the legend of Genghis Khan than what is necessarily the most factual version of the story.  It is claimed that part of the reason for this is that the history of Temudjin is not the easiest to pin down, as it was mostly passed down through the oral tradition, which is prone to glorification and exaggeration.  I’m mostly fine with this kind of embellishment, as its more important for a film to tell a good story than act as an educational tool.  My general rule of thumb is that if I need to look something up to disprove a detail it’s a fair embellishment.

            The film has great cinematography by Roger Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov.  The cinematographers are aided by beautiful scenery.  Mongolia is generally thought of as a cold barren place, but it feels much more alive here than I would have thought.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live there, but the Mongolia of this film is certainly a joy to look at.  The film also has a nice score by Tuomas Kantelinen that seems to occasionally be influenced by Mongolian throat singing.  The film’s dialogue is not beautiful, but one probably shouldn’t expect a rural Mongolian soldier to speak like Shakespeare.  The characters talk in an appropriately blue collar way but are hardly inarticulate.

            The first few battle scenes here are awesome; they’re fast, intense, and brutal.  Bodrov uses mostly real people and avoids generating extras with CGI.  The fight choreography in these battles looks really cool but also feels mostly realistic.  I do however take issue with the climatic battle, which is much larger and CGI dependent.  The fight is well staged enough, but the CGI armies and blood felt less real and more like the poor Hollywood epics of recent like Troy. It’s not a bad battle necessarily, but it isn’t up to the standards of previous action scenes in the film.

            There are other problems with the film’s last act as well.  Notably the film makes the big mistake of introducing supernatural elements during a plot point, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a necessary change.  Earlier the film had a certain metaphorical mysticism involving a wolf and late there is a symbolic resolution involving lighting.  These were both fair enough, as they felt more like symbols than literal onscreen magic, but there’s another point where the plot is affected by a monk’s prophesy.  This undermined the authenticity of the film and generally seemed unnecessary.  It reminded me of a point in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto where the main character is saved by an “act of god,” it felt out of place and added an unnecessary element that wasn’t needed.  I also take issue with a jarring leap forward in time taken in the last act of the movie that skipped over important elements of Temudjin’s life in order to end the film on a battle scene.

            I don’t think I can call this a great film, but it is a cool one.  From a filmmaking perspective I have very little to complain about aside from the final battle.   Ultimately I may have to wait until this trilogy is finished before I pass final judgment on the project, so far it’s off to a good start.

***1/2 out of Four


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