While American filmmakers flog the CGI action to drunken extremes (300, Beowulf), Russian director Sergei Bodrov spits at shortcuts (although he still digs CGI) and recalls the great movie spectacles of the old school, invoking the invigorating spirits of Abel Gance, Sergei Bondarchuk, and Samuel Bronston, in his rousing, grand, and old-fashioned epic Mongol.
The first film in a trilogy, Mongol charts the course of the young nine-year-old Temudjin, beginning in 1172 on the barren and unforgiving Mongolian steppes, and his ensuing trials and tribulations after his father's murder until 1206, when the adult Temudjin (the great Tadanobu Asano
) becomes the legendary Genghis Khan, uniter of the Mongolian tribes, and soon to be conqueror of the world, all set to an incredibly rich musical score by Tuomas Kantelinen. Article continues below
Based upon an ancient Mongolian epic poem written after the death of Khan, the film takes a favorable look at Genghis Khan and treats him, not as a bloodthirsty monster, but as an astute and able political and military leader and a man with love and devotion to his wife and child. There is no wrath in this Khan. Rather Mongol presents a Khan with a spring in his step and love in his heart. And, OK, some wrath.
The film is magnetically centered by the charismatic performance of Asano as Temudjin. The first image of the film is Temudjin, held in captivity. Asano, through the bars of his cage, stares down the camera and pierces the audience with the intense stillness and power of his eyes. It is that gaze that is cast over the rest of the film and with Asano's commanding presence it is easy to believe that Mongol clans would fall behind Temudjin as their beacon of unity -- even if the first shot of Temudjin as an adult has Asano running like hell from his arch enemy Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov).
Bodrov mounts his film in splendor, reveling in the Ford-like landscapes where men are enveloped in the stony expanse and the sky is filled with ominous clouds or intense thunder and lightning bearing down upon forlorn figures on horseback. The camera is fluid and impressionistic, picking up geese in flight over a river, reeds bending in the soft wind, or mystical renditions of filigree from an ancient God. And then there are the mighty battle scenes that Bodrov wades into with relish, set pieces of clanging swords and fearsome heroics, where the blood flows like droplets of rain.
But even with all the grandiosity and robust action, Bodrov makes a point to return to the personal relationships that bind this larger-than-life Temudjin to humanity -- the bond between Temudjin and his strong-willed wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) and Temudjin's doomed friendship with clan leader Jamukha (Honglei Sun, in a refreshingly chummy performance). As in any good "cast-of-thousands" extravaganza, it is the ability of the director to shift gears and make the legends personable and likeable that is all the difference.
In spite of it all, though, Bodrov doesn't quite overcome the trap of depicting a legendary figure (Bodrov should have taken another look at Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln to see how it's done). With all the rabble-rousing vigor, there is not much at stake in Mongol and no surprises. One presumes the audience knows going into the film all the markers in the life of Genghis Khan that have to be touched upon -- or at least the signposts of the genre. But Bodrov and co-writer Arif Aliyev leave nothing to the imagination; it is all spelled out. For instance, like a mantra we are repeatedly told that Targutai and Temudjin will tangle in the future ("When he grows up, I'll kill him." "Someday you will have to kill him." "I won't just kill you -- I'll kill you piece by piece."). By the time the final confrontation occurs between the two, it is somewhat less than apocalyptic. And even an opening Mongolian proverb telescopes the entire film: "Do not scorn a weak cub. He may become a brutal fighter." In its story, Mongol is a bore.
Mongol is a less film narrative than a hagiographic film diorama. But Mongol is presented with such vitality, passion, and intensity that as an object of cinematic contemplation it cuts across critical prevarications like a head-lopping saber.