by HELEN GEIB
Directed and co-written by Sergei Bodrov, Mongol is an imaginative reconstruction of the early life of “the” Mongol, Genghis Khan. Simultaneously famous yet a shadowy figure, Genghis Khan looms larger than life in the popular consciousness. The film aims to rescue him, not from obscurity, but from the mists of unreality that envelop the famous conquerors of the distant past.
The story begins with Genghis Khan’s late childhood and ends with his unification of the nomadic tribes that became known collectively as the Mongols, on the cusp of the chain of conquests that put him into the history books. The title “Genghis Khan” came after unification and the founding of the Mongol Empire; the great khan is called throughout the film by his given name, Temujin (played as an adult by charismatic Japanese star Tadanobu Asano, delivering a performance that dominates the film). The film keeps largely to the known facts, taking some dramatic liberties and, where necessary, sympathetically filling in the (considerable) gaps in the written records.
The film has an episodic narrative that is deceptively simple. The story makes frequent leaps forward in time, sometimes over a period of days or months, sometimes over years, but seldom with any establishing dialogue or titles. The audience must infer the passage of time from children’s ages, material indicators of prosperity like the richness of the clothing and the size of herds, shifted allegiances, and other such clues. Characters are introduced only to be left behind as the film jumps to the next episode; some characters reappear, others vanish from the story without explanation. Characters change while they’re off-screen, creating the impression that the filmmakers are simply dropping in on lives being lived. The film demands and rewards close attention.
There are very few action scenes, an unexpected choice for a film about one of the world’s greatest military leaders. It’s part of a deliberate strategy to focus attention on the person behind the warrior mythos. In a culture that produced many strong warriors, prowess in battle alone cannot explain Temujin’s phenomenal career. The film locates the source of his success in a personality that combined charisma, intelligence, determination, fortitude, and a strong sense of personal and tribal loyalty.
Mongol was filmed on the steppes of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The stunning landscapes and fascinating period re-creation were alone worth the price of admission. It’s also a film of considerable dramatic merit. The central dramatic arc is the passionate love affair between Temujin and his wife; it’s the most personal expression of his love of family, both blood relations and the extended clan. Where the film locates the wellspring of Temujin’s accomplishments in his strength of character, it locates his motivation in an overriding desire to safeguard his own life and the lives of his family and followers. In a society where the strong are routinely destroyed by the stronger, the only safety is in becoming the strongest. As khan of all Mongols, he imposes two inviolable rules on his subjects: do not harm women or children and never betray your khan.
Other new releases this week: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Edge of Heaven, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, Standard Operating Procedure, Still Life, Stuck, War, Inc., XXy