Mongol

August, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Sergei Bodrov

Starring:Tadanobu Asano, Sun Honglei, Khulan Chuluun, and Odnyam Odsuren

Three years ago, author Jack Weatherford published a biography of Genghis Kahn with an arresting subtitle which conjoined the late 12th century warlord with, in Weatherford’s words, “the making of the Modern World”. The book argues that Kahn’s extraordinary rampages eliminated tribal conflict and allowed the creation of basic societal rules. Without his imposition of “order by force” throughout Central Asia, the development of modern civilization would have been critically inhibited. Whatever credence you choose to place on that viewpoint, Weatherford sparked a re-evaluation of Kahn’s image as a loathsome barbarian; this film expands that evaluation and depicts Kahn as a 20th century-style family man, devoted to his wife and children. To enjoy this film, you have to get past that bodice-ripping premise and concentrate on the visual scope of Russian director Sergi Bodrov’s 2+ hour epic - - if you do, you won’t be disappointed.

The historical facts about Kahn aren’t in great dispute, even if the details remain sketchy; son of a tribal chieftain poisoned by a rival clan, Kahn spent his early years in servitude to his future wife’s family and was then enslaved by old foes bent on preventing Kahn from enjoying his father’s royal legacy. Gradually acquiring prominence by a combination of ruthless force and personal charisma, Kahn labored to unite the Mongol peoples whose culture sanctioned perpetual inter-clan bloodshed. By the time of his death, he’d succeeded in amassing a kingdom which encompassed most of Asia and his descendents added to that remarkable achievement by incorporating parts of modern Russia and the Middle East under Mongol rule as well.

Writer/director Bodrov stunningly marries choreographed battle scenes and astounding images of Central Asia’s steppes with a Hallmark storyline about the enduring love between this rapacious bandit chief and his wife Borte. If Bodrov’s script is to be believed, Kahn’s love for the woman to whom he was betrothed at age nine became the driving force in his desire to escape the constant dangers and protracted vulnerability which marked his adolescence. Hollywood hooey as a premise, but the director has the good sense to dribble out the love affair in bits and pieces over the length of the film, giving the audience ample opportunity to skip the cheesy melodrama and gasp at the desolate, physical beauty of the movie’s unique Russian, Georgian and Kazakhstan locations. 

Mongol’s production details enhance the beauty of its landscape; the clothing, jewelry, weaponry and diet of these nomads is presented in such gloriously observed detail it’s hard not to appreciate the magnitude of Bodrov’s accomplishment. He’s made a dozen or so movies before this one, all of them shot with international casts; this one features a soundtrack in Mongol, an accomplished horde of actors never before seen in the U.S. and a soundtrack of such guttural ferocity it’s often hard to determine whether the audience is being exposed to an Asiatic version of Gregorian chant or sound effects normally confined to horror flicks.

Mongol was nominated as best foreign language film last year and if for no other reason, it earned that designation on the basis of its stunning visual images. Shot by veteran Dutch cinematographer Rogier Stofffers and his equally gifted Russian partner Sergei Trofimov, Mongol has the same gift for presenting vast, seemingly abandoned landscapes as Lawrence of Arabia. Like David Lean’s masterpiece, the profoundly moving impact of Bodrov’s locations must be seen on a screen big enough to accurately convey the breathtaking immensity of the subject matter; should you have the opportunity to see this film in a theater, (as it was surely intended to be experienced) you’re in for a treat.

The verdict? Forget the sophomoric story line and concentrate on Mongol’s sweeping images and minutely-observed cultural subtext; both are more than worth the price of admission. 

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