Movie-goers nowadays tend to be a lot more demanding when it comes to historical re-enactments and depictions of major historical figures, so when a Russian filmmaker attempts to cover the early formative years of Genghis Khan and depict him as a strong but noble warrior with a sense of generosity and fairness, as well as a deeply romantic hero, choosing moreover a leading Japanese actor to play the role, he certainly sets himself up to charges of historical inaccuracy, political correctness and revisionism. Whether those charges are justified or not is certainly debatable, but what is beyond question is Sergei Bodrov’s ability to effectively give a grand historical subject the traditional epic treatment it so obviously merits.
Mongol is the first part of what is intended to be a trilogy on the life of the legendarily bloodthirsty Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, born as Temudgin, who would go on to extend his rule of Mongolia by ruthlessly conquering half the world. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how any film would approach the childhood of a notorious figure and depict the incidents that would shape their extraordinary future selves (how for example could you make a credible film about the childhood of Adolf Hitler?), but Mongol certainly makes a convincing case for Genghis Khan while sticking relatively close to the known facts.
Following the death of his father, the Khan, soon after the 9 year-old boy has been taken to a neighbouring tribe to select his future bride, the young Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren) is persecuted by Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), who seizes his chance to become leader of the tribe, and only holds back from killing Temudgin on account of the Mongolian tradition of never killing children. He makes no secret however of his vow to kill the boy the moment he reaches maturity. Temudgin isn’t about to wait for that day to arrive and endure the beatings and treatment dealt out to him while imprisoned, so he makes his escape and sets out alone on the treacherous, frozen steppes of Mongolia. The subsequent years are a struggle for the young man (played in later years by Tadanobu Asano), striving to evade capture by his enemies, forging alliances – most notably with his blood brother Jamukha (Honglei Sun) – and striving to regain the woman who has been promised to him in marriage, Borte (Khulan Chuluun).
Mongol is then very much in the tradition of the sweeping, epic adventure movie or even a Western, taking a romantic love story as its centre. And it’s an almost convincing approach, finding in Tedmugin’s youth all the necessary adversity and drive that would lead him to become one of the most notorious figures in history. I say almost because it is virtually an impossible task to carry off convincingly and there are several elliptical gaps over the course of the film when the young man sets off alone into the wilderness only to come back with tremendous fighting prowess and legions of troops with little indication of the kind of personality that would inspire such devotion and recruitment powers. It’s suggested at several key points that Tedmugin is favoured by the thunder god Tengri, which is certainly convenient, particularly in the decisive showdown battle that closes the film, but it does at least feel authentic to the belief culture and the period (historically Genghis Khan is indeed reputed to possess Shamanistic powers) and is probably the only way to elevate a mere mortal to the level of historical legend. He may not have been supported by the Gods, but if his followers believe it, it certainly gives him the necessary authority to inspire the devotion of his forces.
Temudgin’s central relationships with his family, Borte, Jamukha and Targutai are all strongly developed, creating all the necessary narrative drive, motivation and action demanded by the film, but perhaps even more essential is the forging of a relationship between the future Genghis Khan and the land. The striking widescreen cinematography certainly achieves that, the film making the most of the incredible landscapes of China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia – and with this as a background, the film never feels the need to rely on CGI’d vistas. The realism is extended to the majority of the battle sequences which come as a refreshing alternative to the pumped-up cartoon exaggeration of 300 or the flying acrobatics of House of Flying Daggers.
In this respect, the film is as a whole solidly forged, but perhaps the strongest link in the chain that holds the whole film together is the casting of Tadanobu Asano. The choice of a Japanese actor as Genghis Khan is certainly a controversial one, even if there are some who lay claim to the great leader being of Japanese origin. And if there are problems with his articulation of the Mongolian language, it’s not going to be a factor that troubles most international viewers. What is lost in cultural and historical authenticity however is gained by the impressively understated performance of one of the world’s greatest actors. In the utterance of a single word "Go" towards the end of the film he incredibly manages to take in everything that has taken him up to that moment and expresses the authority that will take him much further. Should the proposed trilogy not be developed beyond this first part by Sergei Bodrov, it’s the kind of contribution that makes the film as it is feel utterly complete.
Mongol – The Rise To Power of Genghis Khan is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Universal Pictures. The film is presented on BD25 disc at 1080/24p. The disc is Region B encoded.
It’s hard to find any serious fault with the High Definition 1080/25p image on this release. The transfer presents an image of wonderful clarity – not overly sharp but detailed nonetheless, showing an exceptional range of tones particularly in skin tones, with no evident bleed or cross-colouration issues. Although it can often be strikingly colourful, there is subtlety and restraint shown, allowing for a full level of tones and levels of saturation to match the seasons (the depiction of nature being of primary importance in the film), from the lush greens of the steppes to the cool frosts of frozen lakes. More difficult scenes are also well rendered, the night-time scene where Temudgin escapes from prison capturing the warm glows of firelight, with deep shadows and vivid reds. Most impressive is the stability of the image which registers scarcely a flicker and, of course, has no marks of any kind. If there is edge enhancement applied, it’s done well, but I couldn’t detect any noticeable issues on a 40" screen.
Please note that images shown in this review are promotional images and not actual screenshots from the Blu-ray disc.
The film comes with a full DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio mix and a regular Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. Still waiting for Sony to send me out my STR-DG820 receiver, I was unable to experience the High Definition track, but even listening to what I presume is the 'Core' DTS Surround 1.5mbps track that is embedded within, it’s a powerful presentation of the soundtrack, so I would expect the full lossless audio track to be very impressive indeed. The sound design is fully utilised for the effects and music score, with well-toned dialogue, achieving a naturalistic sound full of clarity, body and impact, not least in the clashing swords of the epic battle scenes.
English subtitles are provided. They are a curious mix of regular white titles with a fine outline and lines with the text in a solid black border. The intention is evidently to make the subtitles clear and stand out when the foreground is white (as in the snow scenes) or cluttered, but it doesn’t seem strictly necessary and isn’t consistently employed. This is exactly how it was shown theatrically when I saw a digital projection of the film earlier in the year. The subtitles moreover are fixed with the transfer. I found no means to remove them either from the menu options or from the remote control.
Extras are not plentiful. The main featurette is a Russian Making of Mongol (25:52), presented in 480/60i. Director Sergei Bodrov provides most of the commentary, discussing his intentions for the film, his interest in the character of Genghis Khan, rather than the legend, but also his intent to remain faithful to the Eastern representation of the man as a reformer and a revolutionary. Tadanobu Asano talks about the preparation required, while Khulan Chuluun (Borte), a non-professional actress talks about how she was chosen and the challenges the film presented. There is a brief look at the set and production design, the locations, the costumes and props, where authenticity was the key word. Other than that, there is just a High Definition 1.78:1 Trailer (2:11) with a dreadful American voice-over, (though it does look stunning) and HD trailers for the DVD releases of Black Water (1.59) and Innocent Voices (2:10).
Sergei Bodrov’s approach to the opening chapters of the life of Genghis Khan is satisfying on so many levels. It’s based on legend and filmed like an epic adventure, yet it also strives for naturalism and authenticity and largely succeeds in its endeavour to make a historical figure resolutely human. Yet it leaves enough room for ambiguity – the warrior’s legendary powers could indeed be a gift from the gods or even arise from his love for a woman. Technically, the film is also a wonderful achievement, similarly relying on the beauty of nature and the landscapes, but making effective use of special effects when required to lift the story to another level. Ideally, Mongol – The Rise To Power of Genghis Khan ought to be seen theatrically on the big screen, but Universal’s fine Blu-ray edition at least gives the film the best kind of presentation that Home Theatre can provide.