DVD Review: Mongol
Mongol is a biopic of Genghis Khan’s early days (it ends with him assuming that famous mantle) that strives for a real authenticity in recreating the world of 12th-century Mongolia I haven’t seen since Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic, Apocalypto. The film, co-financed by the Mongolian government, is entirely in Mongolian (thankfully the DVD doesn’t even bother with an English-dubbed language track), and features a cast of largely Mongolian actors (with one exception being the lead, played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano). I’m not a Genghis Khan expert by any means, so I can’t really comment on Mongol’s accuracy, but I do know it’s one of the best historical epics I’ve seen in some time.
Mongol tells the story of Temudjin, the son of a Mongolian khan who witnesses his father’s betrayal and murder while still a child. His family is betrayed by his father’s former right-hand man, who assumes the mantle of khan himself, and swears to kill Temudjin when he comes of age, as Mongols, we are told, forbid the killing of women and children. Young Temudjin is promptly chained to a pole in the middle of the village before he manages to escape, and grows into manhood while in exile from the very people he’d been groomed to lead. He seeks out his wife, whom he chose (but really, she chose him) decades earlier while they were both still children – the trip on which his father was murdered was to find young Temudjin a wife from a rival tribe – and eventually unites the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into an army that would conquer most of the known world.
The most striking aspect of Mongol, to me, was the love story. The stance taken by Bodrov and co-screenwriter Arif Aliyev seems based largely on the old maxim about how behind every great man is a greater woman. The love between Temudjin and Börte, his wife, is what drives him throughout the film, and there are parts where he appears to be on the verge of finally just giving up all hope, only to be buoyed by her strength. Their connection not only drives Temudjin, but the entire film, and as much as that sounds like a cliché, here it really is the case. It gives Mongol a genuine heart I really wasn’t expecting from a biopic about Genghis Khan. Most Hollywood movies show a woman’s “strength” by having her beat up on men or act like a man, but Börte’s strength is far more real than anything I’ve seen in any American film like this. She does a lot more than stand by her man; she travels across the continent to break him out of prison. As tough as Temudjin is shown to be in the film, Börte is consistently shown to be as strong and resourceful, if not more so. Between her and Temudjin’s equally fiery mother, the women characters in Mongol are the strongest in the movie.
The performances in Mongol are uniformly great, though there was only one actor I’d seen before, and that’s Asano as Temudjin. He’s an actor with a sizeable following among fans of Japanese cult movies, having broken out with his role as the villain in Takashi Miike’s (really, the personification of Japanese cult cinema) ultraviolent manga adaptation Ichi the Killer. He’s an actor with a real charisma, the kind that comes across even when he’s not speaking. Indeed, much of his performance in Mongol consists of staring at people and things wordlessly, and he’s utterly compelling. Khulan Chuluun as Börte is also damn impressive; obviously Temudjin is the main character in the film, but she makes Börte just as interesting.
Mongol was directed by Russia’s Sergei Bodrov. (Between being co-produced by and shot in Mongolia, directed by a Russian and starring a Japanese actor in the lead, Mongol is easily the most truly multicultural film I’ve reviewed yet.) There’s a lot of interesting films and filmmakers coming out of Russia right now, most notably Wanted and Night Watch/Day Watch director Timur Bekmambetov. Bodrov doesn’t pack Mongol with the hyperkinetic, super-flashy visual style of Bekmambetov, but Mongol is a great-looking movie. Bodrov and cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov really showcase the stark beauty of the Mongolian steppes, and some of the shots in this movie are among the most breathtaking I’ve seen. Mongol is just a flat-out gorgeous film.
Another thing about Mongol that surprised me – pleasantly, I might add – is the lack of “action.” It was an hour into the film’s two-hour running time before the first real battle sequence, and by then I’d become so involved in the story I’d almost forgotten about that aspect of the film. While the battle scenes are really well done (and nicely violent, which adds to their authenticity), if you’re looking for an action flick, look elsewhere (I recommend Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s wuxia trinity of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, though the emphasis on action in those three films lessens as the films go on). Mongol, while telling the story of history’s greatest conqueror, is more interested in what makes him tick than in elaborate action sequences.
Mongol, though it works perfectly fine on its own, is intended as the first part of a planned trilogy of films chronicling the life of Genghis Khan. I for one hope Bodrov, Asano and company get to complete their trilogy. If Mongol is any indication, it could be the definitive film version of Genghis Khan’s story the way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy will undoubtedly be seen as the final cinematic say on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy cycle.
There are literally no extras on the Mongol DVD, which is sort of too bad – I’d love to learn more about the production and how devoted the filmmakers were to historical accuracy, if the facts were gleaned from a specific book about Genghis Khan or several, etc. – but the movie’s good enough that I can overlook it. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a more elaborate DVD release in the future, possibly if the trilogy is completed.
Labels: biopic, DVD review