Flawed but magnificent, Mongol, by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, is a film of truly epic proportions. From the sprawling canvas of scenery shot in some of the most remote parts of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, to the mythos of one of the most feared men in human history, this film paints both an elusive and visceral personal portrait.
There probably aren’t many people even today who have never heard the name Genghis Khan, and as a success story, this version is a compelling one. Based on a poem in Mongolian dated just after the great lord’s death (rather than on the numerous accounts in Russian, Chinese, and Arab that paint him as a monster), Bodrov’s heavily researched film traces the life of Temudgin, a boy of relatively mundane roots. Accompanying his father, a minor tribe’s Khan (lord), at the age of nine to find a bride in a tribe previously wronged, Temudgin instead makes a headstrong and politically problematic decision to marry a girl of a different tribe. Unable to fault him for his logic or his spirit, Temudgin’s father accepts the betrothal with a sense of wry resignation, only to later be poisoned by the very same tribesmen he was attempting to placate. With Temudgin’s father’s death, certain resentful and ambitious underlings seize his holdings and abandon Temudgin’s family. The only reason Temudgin himself is not immediately slaughtered to prevent later retribution is the fact that Mongols do not kill children, but the feisty little Temudgin vows revenge anyway, and so begins the boy’s struggle for survival to become a man.
Such beginnings are inarguably the stuff of legends, and Mongol proceeds from this point with one foot in myth, one in history, as perhaps is only fitting. The star of this portion of the film is undeniably the young, somehow strong beyond his years Odnyam Odsuren. His dignity and presence provide a realistic foundation for the mettle of the man to come, a mettle that is subsequently taken up with incredible magnetism by Tadanobu Asano as Temudgin comes of age.
And perhaps the irony embedded in this semi-historical account is that despite the bad blood in Temudgin’s past, he does not necessarily exhibit a great deal of Rule the World ambition; he is in fact quite reactive and passive, the effect to someone else’s cause, and Bodrov and his screenwriter Arif Aliyev portray the young Khan-to-be as someone who instead exhibits faith in the Mongol soul and belief in the Mongol ways, while still being a man capable of acts counterintuitive to the Mongol lifestyle. It’s hard to pinpoint a classic turning point though – is it when he commits to a betrothal despite political expectation, or when he later convinces his blood brother Jamukha (who eventually becomes his enemy) to go to war in order to retrieve his stolen bride? Is it even, as the film seems to be sometimes saying, him at all; or is it his incredibly strong and independent wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun), who is perhaps one of the best female characters I have seen on screen this year and who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect, save and redeem him, thereby also redeeming the Mongol way of life, not to mention its destiny?
Perhaps that there is no definitive turning point is the point. This man was not born Genghis Khan; he was merely born. His own innate intelligence, his personal integrity and desires, and the culture and circumstance that shaped him are quite clearly combined forces, and he does not actively seek the mantle of conqueror so much as he balances what he believes a Mongol should with what he believes a man should do. And as much as this may be a major message of the film, it’s also what makes it flawed. The narrative bounds across Temudgin’s early history, and a great deal has to be assumed. Fortunately, both Bodrov’s focus and his camera are on the humanity of the characters. Colour and warmth live in this film, perhaps surprising for a part of the world the rest of us would expect to be harsh and cold and grey, and beauty is embedded in the incredible faces of the cast, in the spectacular costuming, in the inspiring, sweeping panoramas that are part and parcel of the cinematic epic.
Combined with flawless sound design by Stephan Konken and a musical score by Tuomas Kantelinen that evokes a deeper sense of spiritualism that is ever intimated in the film, those assumptions are in fact far from sticking points. Asano’s performance is full of pathos and steel, his personality alone enough to stand against the sheer magnitude of this tale, and the support cast are equally able to carry the drama through despite the sometimes huge gaps in the narrative. For these reasons, the emotional logic of the story holds and its almost fairy tale qualities make it easy to forgive whatever else it seems to lack. And the fact that there isn’t as much action in this film as might be expected is, rather than a detractor to this compressed storyline, a strengthening element; glorifying war and mass scale slaughter is possibly the one thing this film doesn’t aim to do. What it does aim for is humanisation of a legend, and the action it does chronicle is not only meaningful and necessary, it’s by turns brutal and glorious and believable, thrilling to behold and yet heavy with significance.
It seems like an oxymoron that a film about a murdering tyrant could be a pleasure to watch, but perhaps that’s because what we think we know about Genghis Khan, once a boy named Temudgin who through no real ambition of his own went on to unite his nation and conquer the greater part of the Asian continent, is hardly anything at all. If Bodrov set out to demystify this great figure, he has certainly done that; Mongol is a film that writes a different history of a man more hero than conqueror.