Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for strong, bloody violence
Running time: 126 min.
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Hongfei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Amadu Mamadakov, Aliya, Ba Sen, He Qi, Ben Hon Sun
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Screenplay: Arif Aliyev, Sergey Bodrov
Review published September 3, 2010
Russian historian Lev Gumilyov's writings reportedly provides the foundation for this speculative look at the early years of Genghis Khan, the Mongol who would conquer much of the known world of his time, rising to power to become the leader of the Mongol empire. The writings, as well as this film, shows Genghis Khan, not as a brutal, savage and war thirsty murderer, as many other sources depict him, but as a noble hero who squabbled with other tribes out of necessity, honor, and protection of his people.
Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (Zatoichi, Last Life in the Universe) stars as Temudgin (Genghis Khan's name earlier in his life). Temudgin was born in 1162 AD to a life where nomadic Mongols would struggle for existence, but followed a code for survival, respect, and way of life that made them a proud people. The story showcases his childhood from about nine years old and up through adulthood, growing up as the son of his village's "khan" (ruler) who would select a young bride named Borte, a girl from another poorer village, at an early age. His life as a young man would prove to be tumultuous, with frequent near-death experiences and much squabbling for power after his father ends up poisoned by a a rival tribe that didn't respect the traditions of the Mongol culture, signifying a tipping point as a culture, and in the shaping of the mind of a young man who grew up believing that the code of ethics were worth living and dying for.
A sumptuously presented sweeping epic, with smaller moments of intimacy, reminiscent in its style, scope and violence quotient as Braveheart, this bio pic, directed by by Russian-born Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains, Nomad), is beautifully shot, with excellent locale work (mostly shot in Kazakhstan and parts of China (Inner Mongolia)) that captures both the beauty and the desolation of the Mongol region. Nearly seamless CGI assists the depiction of the epic battles, which aren't as plentiful as you might expect for a film about one of the world's greatest conquerors. But what impresses most are the characterizations of the main characters, which are painted colorful, nuanced, and with more humanity than a story with such larger-than-life historic figures would usually afford. A cast from a variety of different countries come together, including Japanese star Tadabobu Asano and Chinese actor Hongfei Sun (The Road Home, Seven Swords), and have the added difficulty of deliver lines in Mongolian dialogue. The difficult part of Borte is played also played nicely by untrained amateur Khulan Chuluun, holding her own in a very testosterone driven story about clashes among men.
Perhaps historians will bristle at seeing a work that relies mostly on what they feel to be fictionalized and idealized accounts of Genghis Khan's life pushed forward as the real deal, while also portraying one of the most ruthless warriors in human history as a reasonable, sympathetic and noble man of great character. Some might have chosen for more of a happy medium between those accounts to jibe with what would be unleashed on the world later. However, I'm not judging the film on its adherence to historical accuracy other than to say it's mostly fabricated, as would be nearly every other account of Genghis Khan's mostly undocumented childhood experiences. As history, it is a failure on many counts, but as a movie, it's a good example of the epic formula with enough separation in its subject matter to distinguish itself.
For those who know that the film is mostly conjecture, you'll likely come away feeling rewarded at a finely crafted and beautifully shot historical epic with choice bits of human drama, fine battle sequences (the CGI-laden blood spurting is a bit overdone, however), and a touching story of an unlikely romance in the middle of a tale that left little room for notions of permanence and enduring relationships. Mongol would go on to garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. It is conceived as the first of a trilogy (though it is reported that the second and third parts may be merged), and if future entries can uphold the quality of this production, it would prove to be a series befitting of such a complex and grandiose historical figure.
-- Soon to be followed by The Great Khan (2010)
©2010 Vince Leo