Aside from a few details sleepily absorbed in history class, what do we really know about Genghis Khan? Only that he was one of the greatest conquerors the world ever saw, and that’s pretty much that. To this point, Hollywood hasn’t been much help, what with Khan’s big screen incarnations including a woeful John Wayne vehicle and a sight gag in Bill & Ted. But the Oscar-nominated Mongol does something that should’ve been done a long time ago, and that’s present Khan not as a legend but as a man. Mongol starts at square one of this historical giant’s story, spinning an epic yarn that focuses on battles fought on an emotional battlefield more than a physical one.
Our story begins in 12th century Mongolia, where young Temudgin (played as a kid by Odnyam Odsuren, as an adult by Tadanobu Asano) is being accompanied on his journey to find a new wife by his father, the khan of their clan. But Temudgin’s life takes a turn for the tragic when his father succumbs to a batch of milk poisoned by the enemy. His clan disbanded in the aftermath of the death, the young lad finds himself without a home, hunted down by those he once considered his allies. Over the years, Temudgin’s search for happiness, including a peaceful life with his loving bride Borte (Khulan Chuluun), is constantly thwarted by those who would see him dead or locked up. But little do they know that such efforts to silence Temudgin serve only to fuel the fire raging in his heart, these events forging him piece by piece into the figure we know today as Genghis Khan.
Mongol is a true lesson in how the less studio interference there is, the better. Director Sergei Bodrov previously stood at the helm of Nomad: The Warrior, which, thanks to the meddling of the Weinstein Company, turned from a sprawling epic about Kazakhstan’s bloody beginnings into a soap operaesque Gladiator wannabe. This time, however, Bodrov seems to be more in control, as Mongol comes across as a film that knows exactly what it wants to be. Those expecting a story explaining Genghis Khan’s origins will be slightly let down, for although the movie leaves no doubt as to who Temudgin will grow to become, what we know him as now is not the focus of the story. In fact, the name “Genghis Khan” isn’t even mentioned throughout the film, keeping Temudgin completely grounded as a character. More than anything, Mongol is about how Mongolian culture came together, with Temudgin witnessing firsthand how bandits ravage peaceful clans and becoming determined to do something about it, setting the stage for a grand saga that the other two chapters of this planned trilogy are to finish.
Unfortunately, Mongol became a film that I admired more than I actually liked. It’s not that there’s technically anything wrong with the film. The cinematography is quite nice, the battle sequences riveting, and the performances very good, especially from Asano as the adult Temudgin and Honglei Sun as his childhood friend-turned-nemesis. But for as much as I appreciated Bodrov’s efforts to keep the story of Genghis Khan down to earth, I can’t say the story really grabbed me all that much. Perhaps it was the plot’s repetitive nature that did it in for me; the turn of events is pretty much comprised of Temudgin being captured by enemy forces and escaping, the pattern repeating over and over across the flick’s two-hour running time. The story tends to spread itself dangerously thin at times, offering very little in the way of compelling material to hook you in; there’s only so many times Temudgin can stare across an open field or make goo-goo eyes at his beloved before you start yelling at the film to move on already.
I’m not sure how historically-accurate Mongol is, but those for whom 300 and Beowulf were way too stylized, this film offers up a more solemn and realistic epic for your viewing pleasure. I can’t vouch for the film’s more yawn-inducing moments, but at least Mongol proves that it’s possible to combine brains and bloodshed with at least halfway decent results.