“Mongol” was nominated for a 2007 Academy Award, but it only just started making the festival rounds earlier this year, beginning at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and most recently screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Its limited cinematic release began on June 6, and since I live dead center of the United States, it took another month to hit my city. Why it is being handled in such a manner is beyond me, because “Mongol” is a masterful five-star effort.
Co-written and directed by Sergei Bodrov, “Mongol” is the supposed first part of a trilogy depicting the life of Temudjin, the man who would come to be known as Genghis Khan. The story begins in the Year of the Black Rat (1172 C.E.) A 9-year-old Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) is told by his father, Esugei (Ba Sen) that it is time for him to pick his bride. Because his father had abducted the wife of a warrior from a rival tribe, the Merkits, he and his son are journeying there to make amends. But it’s a long trek, so they stop and rest with a neighboring, much friendlier clan.
While there Temudjin becomes smitten with a girl Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), and he “chooses” her as his wife. (She actually chooses him.) Although he knows this decision won’t sit well with the Merkits, Temudjin’s father assents to his son’s choice. Before setting off, the boy tells his bride-to-be that he will return in five years. On the way home, they encounter another rival clan, and the confrontation proves deadly. Esugei is poisoned and dies. Temudjin inherits his father’s title, thus becoming Khan of his clan. But few will acknowledge his new status, and the family’s belongings are looted. The men even threaten to kill Temudjin, but are reminded that it is against Mongolian custom to kill children. Fleeing from these attempts on his life, the boy eventually befriends Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar), a tribal prince, and they become blood brothers.
Fourteen years pass and Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), now a skilled warrior, decides it is time to claim his wife (Khulan Chuluun). Their time together is brief, though, as the mask-wearing Merkits show up and abduct Borte. Desperate to get her back, Temudjin ignores a Mongolian “rule” that wars must not be fought over women, and he forms an alliance with his blood brother Jamukha (Honglei Sun). A very bloody battle ensues and the prize is recovered. The men celebrate. In the morning, Temudjin prepares to return home. Because he treats his soldiers better, two of Jamukha’s finest join him. Seeing this as a betrayal, Jamukha becomes Temudjin’s enemy. The last quarter of the film finds our protagonist enslaved, mocked, and caged for many years. Once he’s released, he becomes that force of nature that we’ve all come to know; he’s the notorious fighter and unifier of Mongolia. The final battlefield sequence rivals any big budget Hollywood production, even “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”
According to the film’s official press release, Bodrov and Arif Aliyev based their story on “scholarly accounts” – although it doesn’t mention any texts they consulted –with the purpose of “paint(ing) a multidimensional portrait of the future conqueror, revealing him not as the evil brute of hoary stereotype, but as an inspiring, fearless and visionary leader.” And they succeed. We never see Temudjin as blood-thirsty or power crazed, but as a man prone to loyalty and honor and guided by love. Some may criticize “Mongol” for spending too much time on the protagonist’s inter-relationships, especially with Borte and Jamukha, but isn’t that how we learn about people? By how they treat others?
Two moments in the film reveal volumes about his character: 1) When he rescues his abducted wife, she is pregnant. Rather than abandon her as “damaged goods,” he proudly announces that she is carrying his child. Another similar incident occurs later in the film. 2) In the middle of the film, a Buddhist monk agrees to help Temudjin, but on the condition that he spare the monastery from destruction. Temudjin can’t read and certainly isn’t Buddhist, but he keeps that promise. These moments revealed that he was kind, loving, and honest, and as a character, I really liked him. Is this a historically accurate depiction of Genghis Khan? Have you ever seen a feature film that didn’t take some liberties? The question to ask of a feature film – this doesn’t purport to be a documentary – is it well told? Was it well made? My response is yes and yes.
I’m fascinated by Mongolia anyway, so maybe my reaction was stronger than most, but I felt absolutely transported to another place and time. In fact, I found myself so mesmerized by “Mongol” that on more than one occasion, I forgot I was sitting in a cinema. Everything about the production, from the costumes to the production design, helped to make this “transportation” possible. Karin Lohr’s costumes, especially the women’s, were real standouts. They were intricately detailed and vibrantly colored, and undoubtedly came from historical images. I say this because in at least one scene, a woman’s hair is parted in the middle and constructed in what look like “bull horns,” for lack of a better description. Being a “Star Wars” nerd, I have the book “Dressing A Galaxy,” I know for a fact that one of Padme Amidala’s hairstyles, which is identical to the one in “Mongol,” was based on Mongolian fashion. The music, composed by a Finn named Tuomas Kantelinen, added to the sweeping epic feel already created by the director and his team. The inclusion of sounds and vocal rhythms by Altan Urag, an eight-person Mongolian folk-rock band, took the music to another level. If you’ve never heard Mongolian throat singing, you don’t know what you’re missing. It is otherworldly.
When I first heard about “Mongol,” I wasn’t sold on the concept. Russian filmmaking is sometimes hit and miss, and Bodrov’s last film, “Nomad,” which has a similar theme – a young man is destined to unite Kazakhstan’s warring tribes – was a real disappointment. But then for that film, he cast a California-born actor, Jay Hernandez, in the lead, which made me cringe. To make matters worse, it was in Kazakh and English with some actors’ voices being dubbed. It truly was awful. In the case of “Mongol,” Bodrov gets it right. The film contains no English, and really why would it? It’s straight Mongolian with subtitles. More importantly, he scores big with his lead actor.
Tadanobu Asano is a Japanese actor on the level of a rock star. He has starred in films directed by a veritable who’s who of Japanese cinema, including Hirokazu Koreeda, Katsuhito Ishii, Sogo Ishii, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike. He is, in short, sublime. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. (Yes, I have a school girl crush.) Newcomer Khulan Chuluun is also a visual treat. She’s beautiful and talented. And Honglei Sun is terrific; a commanding cinematic presence. His drunken scenes around the campfire with Asano are hilarious.
If I have to find something negative to say about “Mongol,” then I’d confess it was a bit slow in beginning. Once it gets going, though, it becomes of the best films I’ve seen within the last few years. Some people have criticized the “supernatural” elements that seem to intrude into the narrative, most notably the fact that when Temudjin prays to Tengri, God of the Blue Sky for help he usually gets it. The fact is the Mongolian people are/were animists who worshipped the Blue, Mighty, Eternal Heaven. Even today, with many practicing Buddhism, animistic elements survive. I felt that the inclusion of religious beliefs simply added to the authenticity of the film.
Undoubtedly, Genghis Khan would have called on “divine” help, and if events had gone in his favor, it would have been chalked up to the gods answering. What’s the problem, people? Sometimes viewers need to let go of their analytical minds and let the experience of film overtake them. By the way, if you watch “Mongol” and are want to see more films from this region, check out “Mongolian Ping Pong,” “Cave of the Yellow Dog,” “Story of the Weeping Camel,” and “Khadak.”
Sergei Bodrov (director) / Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov (screenplay)
CAST: Aliya … Oelun
Tegen Ao … Charkhu
Tadanobu Asano … Temudjin
Khulan Chuluun … Börte
Bao Di … Todoen
Deng Ba Te Er … Daritai