There have been many attempts to bring the life of Genghis Khan to the big screen. MONGOL (2007) is another attempt by director Sergei Bodrow, and has earned itself an academy award nomination. This film isn’t a retelling of Khan’s life in his height of power but rather, a biopic about his ascendance to becoming the “Khan” of all Mongols from such humble beginnings. The film’s premise is very similar to the Japanese produced film, Genghis Khan: to the Ends of the Earth and Sea. This film is the first part of an intended trilogy about the life of Khan.
The story begins when we see a young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) looking for a bride. He chooses a young girl named Borte to be his wife in five years. After his father‘s death, young Temudjin, is forced to flee when his father’s second in command decides to take over. The film delves into the life of Temudjin through his journey that will lead him to become one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known.
I am well aware that it is impossible to compress the life of a man as colorful as Genghis Khan in a measly two hours plus. It all depended on the filmmaker’s approach on how and what needed to be put into bear in the film’s running time. Just where does fact and fiction begin and end? The film certainly does feel rather a bit rushed to cover as much ground as possible that it jumps around in timeline. The film does have the usual themes of brotherhood, loyalty, family and commitment. The characters may feel a little underdeveloped and some knowledge in Khan’s history would be an advantage in order to appreciate the film. It was a little curious as to some scenes seemed a little irrelevant but I do think that the filmmakers wanted to focus on Temudjin’s relationship and devotion to his wife Borte.
Borte (played by Khulan Chuluun) is no mere wife to Temudjin. This character is almost as stubborn and strong-willed as her husband. She has her own story to tell, she exhibits her devotion and undying love to Temudjin in ways that would seem almost unbelievable. The phrase; “stand by your man” can be the film’s major selling point. Borte would do anything to save and preserve her relationship to Temudjin; to the point of even selling her body. Tadanobu Asano’s performance is definitely one for the record books, and the actor carries most of the film’s burden along with Chuluun. Asano plays the grim, brooding conqueror very convincingly. The man is such a chameleon, he can adapt to almost any role from “Party 7” to “A Taste Of Tea” to “Mongol”. The film portrays Khan as an inspiration and a man of destiny, which is a change from other portrayals of the Mongol conqueror (other depictions show him to be a heartless, ruthless ruler). His intimidating figure has been downplayed a little to show the humanity inside, and this could be a double-edged sword.
The film is so far from perfect. Aside from the script feeling a bit rushed, the film does have its share of obvious fictional elements. There are touches of mysticism in the film; Temudjin relationship with the Mongol God of the Sky Tengri seemed rather too heavy-handed. The scene with the Chinese monk does do a great job in setting up the film’s final act but it felt too convenient, (luckily this played out well in the film’s end). It would also have been extremely helpful if they fleshed out Temudjin’s character as to how he developed into such a skilled general. The emphasis on the “man of destiny” formula did rather overstay its welcome somewhat.
Of course, with a film about Genghis Khan, you can expect some battle scenes. There are actually two major sequences of bloodshed; the raid on a Merkit camp and the final battle between Temudjin and his “blood brother” Jamukha (Sung Hong Ley). The two sequences are quite decent although lacking in intense spectacle as we’re used to other grand epics such as “LOTR” and “Braveheart”. The final result of the climactic battle also does feel rather silly and failed to be impressive. (even IF its resolution was backed by historical records)
Much to the film’s credit, the film’s cinematography and camerawork are quite impressive. The film definitely looks quite nifty. The costumes and set designs does provide the proper atmosphere for a historical epic, despite the sometimes lackluster execution. The cast is also mostly made up of actual Mongols and the dialogue is in Mongol which does give the film a lot of ambition in regards for an epic feel. Sung Hong Ley almost steals the spotlight as Jamukha, clearly director Bodrov picked the right actor to play Temudjin’s rival.
Complaints aside, “Mongol” is actually a very good film. The film is quite entertaining despite its uneven and heavy-handed elements. The great performances and the film’s pace does provide an entertaining experience. It does lack a bit in the action sequences, so folks who are looking for a bloody film may be disappointed. Just keep in mind that this is the first installment in an intended trilogy; the bloodiest and most exciting aspects of Khan’s life may still be forthcoming.