Movie Review – Mongol (2008)
Sweeping panoramic vistas and haunting imagery cannot save this altogether pedantic historical drama that never manages to incite much emotion except for bone crushing monotony. Based on Genghis Khan, one of history’s grandest conquerors, the film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov never manages to move out of first gear and relies on some incredible leaps in time and suspect scene construction that never presents more than a wafer thin insight into the early years of the man who would go on to cut a path of conquest through much of Asia.
The subject matter certainly seems rife with myriad possibilities as it is always fascinating to see how events shaped these great historical figures and the film does present a largely fresh angle by focusing on how young Temudjin managed to unite Mongolia under his banner. Other films on the same subject matter have largely focused on his great military victories that built the Mongol Empire from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea.
The movie opens as a young nine-year-old Temudjin accompanies his father to choose his bride. Against his father’s wishes he chooses Borte, or more to the point she chooses him and so Temudjin gives her a polished wishbone and promises to return in five years to claim her. However, on the way home his father is poisoned by a rival tribe and dies causing his followers to rebel flocking to a former charge named Targutai who usurps the Khan title. Knowing that Temudjin will be a threat he informs everyone that in keeping with tradition he will kill him once he reaches a certain age.
The film depicts Temudjin’s formative years as being incredibly harrowing as the young boy constantly has to fend for himself against both nature and those who want him dead. I am not too familiar with Genghis Khan’s childhood so I can’t easily tell if what the movie shows as following history but it seemed to me that what is on display here would make any Hollywood screenwriter weary. This stems for the fact that the film feels like some bastardized version of Groundhog Day staring Bill Murray who plays a simple weatherman who detests reporting on Groundhog Day yet somehow is forced to relive it over and over again, caught in some temporal loop.
Young Temudjin would be so lucky. Unfortunately, for him things are much dire. After escaping from Targutai he gets captured by him again and locked up. However, he manages to escape and spends some time being free before being captured once again whereby he later escapes only to fall prey to capture yet again. Now, I’m not an expert in Genghis Khan’s early life but as a film this simple structure of escaping and being caught keeps repeating over and over again until the viewer cannot help but wonder just how this figure managed to unite Mongolia since he spends more than half the film as a slave.
This is the film’s biggest faux pas. Although it’s refreshing to watch young Temudjin grow up, director and writer Sergei Bodrov rarely provides insight as to how he learned military strategy or political acumen that enabled him to rise above all the other Mongol warlords. For such a brutal warrior the film constantly has trouble showcasing him as having any sort of emotional response. As played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, the adult version of Temudjin seems incredibly relaxed, laid back and carrying a heavy air of honour and regal grace. His spirit is completely at ease with an almost Zen-like peacefulness even when he finds himself rotting in a Tangut prison cell, his skin parched and peeling off in flakes. This sort of detached personality seems at odds with his military endeavors that are extremely ignored. The only way the audience can tell that he is a master strategist is because his opponents inform us in lines of dialogue that basically give praise to him.
For a figure universally admired as a capable warrior and leader but also vehemently despised as a genocidal mass murderer that caused much destruction around the world it is very tough to match this view with Asano’s depiction of the honourable warrior. It’s as if the filmmakers have decided to put on rose-coloured glasses and elevate his stature past the point of believability into an almost Jesus-like figure.
Little is actually known about ancient Mongolian history as most of it was passed through oral traditions. In terms of written accounts there’s precious few so there seems to be a lot of leeway that director Bodrov can use to fill in gaps but he does so with some suspect sequences that play up the spiritual world that borders on science fiction mysticism. Locked in a wooden slave contraption around his neck that also binds his hands young Temudjin makes his way to a sacred stone temple and prays to the God Tengri to give him strength to persevere. After a few shots of a striking gray wolf Bodrov cuts back to Temudjin who is suddenly free of the slave device. Did God intervene? Did the wolf bite it off? We’ll never know but this sort of blatant divine intervention should not belong in a historical movie.
This concept of the divine also shows up at the climax as two opposing Mongol armies clash yet Temudjin wins precisely because the Gods help him. It also pops up during a key moment when Temudjin returns to the sacred stone temple to tell the God Tengri the beginnings of his famous Yassa, the Mongolian code of law that he creates to govern and unify his people. All these scenes are not properly set up and merely appear as separate instances with no background. Watching Temudjin recite his code of conduct to the Gods comes off as incredibly unconvincing since the movie had never previously shown us enough evidence to lead him to these conclusions. Even Borte is involved in these divine maneuverings as she somehow knows that a monk has died in the middle of the desert and magically finds his body in the vast wasteland. Maybe she’s in tune with The Force?
Some of the events that the film makes great pains to highlight would cause any contemporary man, or woman, to feel a rush of uneasiness and downright disgust. Most of these revolve around Temudjin’s wife Borte who routinely undergoes humiliating bouts of sleeping with other men. Now, the film does present reasons for each instance but most telling is Temudjin’s complete nonchalant reaction to these discoveries. In short, he doesn’t care one bit that his first two children are not his – one fathered from the Merkit tribe, which killed his dad and the other from a wealthy Tangut merchant who saved Borte in the desert. Temudjin is a paragon of virtue here and takes both kids under his wing without a moment’s hesitation even though his followers deride him behind his back.
The film spends an inordinate amount of time showcasing Temudjin’s complete devotion to Borte yet lags in his relationship to other key figures such as his blood brother Jamukha. When Borte is captured by the Merkits, Temudjin has no choice but to go to Jamukha and ask for help. At first Jamukha is unconvinced even chastising his friend for forcing a war over a woman yet he eventually relents. They eventually manage to defeat the Merkits and save Borte but Temudjin leaves silently in the night taking some of Jamukha’s finest warriors with him. An infuriated Jamukha rides to Temudjin and demands to know why he has done this whereupon Temudjin calmly states that any Mongol has the right to choose his leader. Sun Honglei as Jamukha is a breath of fresh air taking a one-dimensional role and giving it much needed oomph with bone cracking snarls, guttural singing and piercing stares that the audience expects from Genghis Khan not his rival.
This causes a split between the two and sets up their rivalry for leadership of Mongolia but the film never delves further into this angle which might had added some needed spark to the proceedings instead shunting it aside until the slapdash final battle where the two face off against one another.
This final battle relies heavily on CG to enhance the size of armies and add weather effects but it is incredibly obvious and intrusive especially when the clouds suddenly darken and lightning descends onto the battlefield. Not to mention, it looks as if the entire population of Mongolia has shown up as the armies stretch for miles. I can understand ending the movie on a rousing note but for a film that rarely showed more than two or three people on screen at the same time it’s completely jarring.
Bodrov’s editing is also very blunt and though most can easily understand what is happening the time lapses between scenes escalates until it becomes a detriment to the narrative. After escaping from the Tangut prison with the help of his wife the two embark on a sex scene that is not at all needed followed by the reunited family frolicking amongst a field of grass. Borte knows that Temudjin is going to leave and he does and then suddenly we cut to the future final battle between Temudjin and Jamukha without ever showing the audience how an escaped slave managed to cobble together a fully armored fighting force.
The movie’s only two saving graces are an incredibly poignant score by Tuomas Kantelinen and the aforementioned stunning scenery. Filmed mostly in China in the province of Inner Mongolia the gloriously bleak landscapes become another character by themselves and do more to show the harsh existence of ancient Mongol life than the machinations of the narrative. Watching the barren arid landscape, rock-strewn ground and brutal winter condition drives home the astounding fact that such a hardy people rose up to follow Genghis Khan on a drive for global hegemony even though their homeland is almost unlivable.
Sadly, the film does not present a compelling picture of the great warrior, reducing him to a mere passive observer instead of steely willed leader. Without attempting to explain and show how he rose to prominence it turns the movie into one that basically comes down to fate and destiny that chose him for this monumental task. Even worse, whatever military strategy is on display is completely suspect. Instead of utilizing his famed horse archers the film instead replaces them with cavalry that wield two swords that basically cut a path through the opposing army by galloping straight ahead with their outstretched arms killing everyone who doesn’t have the brains to just avoid them.
Do yourself a favor if you really want to know history – go and read historical texts or the numerous books written on Genghis Khan. Even though this is a multinational production it falls prey to too many inconsistencies and Hollywood styled platitudes.
** out of ****
2008, Kazakhstan, 126 minutes, R, Picturehouse Entertainment
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Screenplay by Arif Aliyev & Sergei Bodrov
Produced by Sergei Bodrov, Anton Melnik, Sergei Selyanov
Executive Producer: Bob Berney, Bulat Galimgereyev, Alec Schulmann
Original Music by Tuomas Kantelinen
Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers & Sergey Trofimov
Film Editing by Valdís Óskarsdóttir & Zach Staenberg
Temudjin: Tadanobu Asano
Jamukha: Honglei Sun
Börte: Khulan Chuluun
Oelun – Temudjin’s Mother: Aliya
Esugei – Temudjin’s Father: Ba Sen
Targutai: Amadu Mamadakov
Merchant with Golden Ring: Ying Bai
Dai-Sechen: He Qi
Monk: Ben Hon Sun
Boorchu: Ji Ri Mu Tu
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow