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, 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.
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