Mongol could make an epic

Kaazkhstan, 2007
Directed By: Sergei Bodrov
Written By: Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov
Starring: Tadanobou Asano, Sun Hong-Lei, Khulan Chuluun
Running Time: 126 min.
Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare
4 out of 5 stars
Ghengis Khan is a figure whose political accomplishments—uniting nearly all of the warring factions of Asia—are unlikely to ever be paralleled. With this in mind, it seems appropriate that the first serious attempt to chronicle his life on film has united so many countries. Mongol, the first film in a planned trilogy by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, is a co-production of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Germany, and Russia, and features actors from nearly all parts of Europe and Asia (the credits list “translators” for quite a bit of screen time). That such a sweeping epic can be made by so many different people, speaking so many different languages, for so little money (less than $20 million, or roughly what Hollywood spends on catering for a 90-minute drama with four characters) is a testament to the skills of those involved. It’s worth seeing for its sweeping ambition alone.

As the first of the trilogy, Mongol primarily focuses on Khan’s childhood and rise to power. Played stoically (but not dispassionately) by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, the future Khan chooses a wife (at nine years old, of course), sees his father murdered, is sold into slavery, and finally begins to unite the Mongol hordes. Bodrov’s not necessarily telling a true story here—the Mongols didn’t write down any of their history—but he’s drawn from various sources, including an ancient Chinese epic poem and the controversial work of Russian historian Lev Gumilyov. At the heart of it all is the question of what drove Khan to accomplish what he did later in life. And Bodrov might not have the answers, but he’s more than ready to make some up.
Bodrov has woven numerous diverse themes into the picture, including the nature of religion (Khan succeeds because he stops fearing his god), the origins of civilization, and the meaning of war. The most significant theme for Bodrov, however, is family. Khulan Chuluun is captivating as Khan’s wife Borte—at once vulnerable and empowered (a feminist figure for the twelfth century)—and is the star of this film as much as (or more than) Khan himself. Khan and Borte’s complex, but devoted, relationship—which survives, even while all the forces of man and nature do what they can to tear it apart—provides most of the tension in the picture, and most of Khan’s inspiration.
As this is the first in a sprawling trilogy, there’s not a lot of thrust to the plot (remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring, and then having to wait a year for part two?), but that’s not really the point of Mongol. The stars here are the camerawork and the battle sequences. As was proven in Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa’s 2003 documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel (which you should rent right now, if you haven’t seen it), Mongolia is a country that can’t possibly look bad on film. Bodrov’s camera pans, tracks, and flies over miles of astonishingly beautiful countryside. This is no travelogue, however: the sweeping visuals are here to match the sweeping epic; they mirror the depth of longing inside the characters. Many of them are digitally enhanced, but not in a way that’s garish or distracting; truth be told, this artifice adds to the mythos of the film (in a way similar to, but more subtle than, Andrew Adamson’s Narnia series).
In the same way, the battle sequences are beautifully choreographed and thrilling to watch. This is a decidedly old-school war movie, where the emphasis is on action and heroics, not disorientation or gore. There are splashes of digital blood (it’s somewhat bizarrely evocative of the original Mortal Kombat), but it’s tasteful, and the action remains tight and engaging without being repulsive. The focus remains on Khan himself.
Whether this is good or not, of course, remains up to you. This is a film that’s almost entirely positive on an assuredly controversial figure. Should Khan be venerated for uniting a tumultuous continent, or condemned for the cruelties he enacted? It’ll probably offend most art-house buffs when I say this, but watching Mongol is not unlike watching Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace: in order to enjoy it the way it wants you to, you have to pretend you don’t know how it turns out. But perhaps this is the point, as the latter two installments will probably delve into these questions more. Mongol is about Khan’s journey from naïve youth to uncompromising idealist; the rest of the trilogy will undoubtedly deal with his change from idealist to pragmatist, and later, from pragmatist to megalomaniac. In this sense, Mongol certainly has the potential to be a success, but it’s a potential that’s not yet realized.
Here’s hoping that the returns on this one will be enough to finance future installments (then again, this one is almost guaranteed to be profitable, with such a paltry budget). Mongol doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but it’s hard to argue with filmmaking as effectively epic as this. It’s worth seeing for its cinematography alone; but beyond that, it’s worth supporting so that Bodrov’s epic vision can be realized. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to Mongol Trilogy marathons on rainy Saturday afternoons ten years from now. Keep your fingers crossed.

Mongol is currently playing at the Circle Cinema. Call 598-FILM for tickets and showtimes.

About the Author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano and pretending to be Assistant Editor for