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This review is from: Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan [DVD] (2007) (DVD)
Mongol is a spectacular film. The 2007 Russian-made biopic of the Genghis Khan's early years is one of the most impressive and beautiful films of recent years. While it was best seen at the cinema, the DVD is a quality rendition of this epic. The plot is based on the early years of Temujin as he learns to survive being orphaned and captured, finds love, and becomes a leader.
Visually, Mongol is absolutely breathtaking. The vastness of the Steppe is emphasised with fabulous wide angles of rolling plains. The land the Mongols inhabit is the defining feature of their culture and it is so well represented here in the huge scope. The distances the Mongols travel on horse and by foot is told expertly without dragging the film's running time. The harshness of life in the bitterly cold depths of winter and the blistering heat of summer are both clearly in evidence. This is a hard land that created a hard people and Mongol's cinematography captures that feeling perfectly.
The plot of Mongol is drawn from The Secret Life of the Mongols and deals with Temujin's early life. This is not a film about Genghis Khan the great conqueror, this is a film about Temujin and his struggles to survive. The story is told in episodic flashbacks that highlight some of the key moments of the legends surrounding Temujin's extraordinarily tough childhood years. The first flashback is of Temujin and his father in their quest to acquire the boy a future wife. This is an excellent flashback as it rolls in so many key plot features together. Temujin's iron will and his desire to make his own decisions even at a young age, the beginnings of a deep romantic connection with future wife Borte, the caste system within Mongol society, and the inter-family rivalries of the Steppe. In just a couple of scenes, the pacing, characterisation, and setting of the film are made evident. This is truly excellent directing.
The excellent directing comes from a source not hugely well known to the western market. Sergei Bodrov is arguably not even a big name in Russia but this film is expertly directed.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature about the Russianness of Mongol is the positive light it casts on Genghis Khan. No peoples have as visceral a folk memory of Genghis Khan's Mongols than the Russians. Centuries of warfare between Russians and Mongols/Tartars has forged an image in the Russian psyche but this film does not pander to stereotypes of the eastern barbarian. Genghis is a hugely sympathetic character and all of his acts are entirely logical. He is extremely human and the romance with Borte is at the heart of that humanity. As Borte was herself somewhat legendary, their relationship was most likely extremely strong - Bodrov's interpretation of it seems to fit both the flow of the film and a likely real bond between the pair.
Mongol is helped by a superb acting performance from Tadanobu Asano. It may be because he is Japanese but there is a touch of the noble warrior about his Genghis. Stoic and supremely strong, ruthless when necessary, but above all a thinker. Asano maintains Temujin's powerful demeanour throughout yet still flashes tenderness when with family and kin. The scene in which Khan must ask for the help of blood brother Jamukha is so incredibly touching as the proud Temujin finds a way to reach out to another for assistance.
As the film is largely about the young Temujin, Asano does not dominate the screen time. A Mongolian child actor features quite often and his attempt to portray the strength of the Mongolian adult world works extremely well as it looks as though it is a young man doing everything in his power to show the world what he can be. The matrimonial selection scene is extremely sweet and when the young Temujin chooses the young Borte it is heartwarming.
The older Borte is a remarkably beautiful woman. Khulan Chuluun really would be a catch even for the Great Khan. Chuluun apparently is not an actor and had no acting experience but perhaps that helps as her character must find a way to succeed in the deep end of a very harsh world. Borte plays a major role in Temujin's escape from captivity as an adult, she is portrayed as resourceful, determined, and devoted. In a less difficult environment these might be archetypal features but on the Mongolian Steppe, Borte's features make her a pragmatist and a survivor.
The third main character of the film is Jamukha played by Sun Honglei. His ia a fascinating charcter. He is blood brother to Temujin and the two have similarities but also clear differences. That Sun Honglei is Chinese perhaps helps this as his acting style is more akin to a martialist and the way he walks and holds himself is different to Tadanobu Asano. The pair have a strong bond and share laughter and alcohol together but they are both extremely ambitious. As the two most successful warriors on the Mongolian Steppe, their relationship is always a little tense. The change in relationship between Jamukha and Temujin is effected gradually which really helps the pacing of the film.
The undulating pace that moves through slower periods of dialogue and body language is superbly exacerbated by the expanse of the plains. The more physical scenes are much more intense as a result. The battle sequences involving the Merkits are extremely impactful. The climactic battle is scene is a little shorter than might be expected but in the main the horseback battles are thunderous. The brutality of Mongol life is not shied away from and indeed is part of Temujin's underlying morality as he breaks with some customs to build greater loyalty amongst those he is close with. The one-on-one violence of the film is ever present. Assassinations, cruelty, and imprisonment are commonplace and this presents a continuous layer of tension. Even the smallest of defeats can have disasterous consequences for the characters involved so every decision and every moment has greater intensity.
Musically, Mongol is OK but not great. Using eastern sounds helps with the setting but music is not a driver of emotion in Mongol as is the case in many western epics. The silences are great and the sound effects are believable but the music is not something that sticks strongly in the mind.
The DVD Extras are relatively short but feature a making of. The most interesting element is the internationality of the production. Clearly it was mostly Mongols especially during the horseback scenes but the casting of a Japanese and a Chinese actor to play the major roles clearly added additional levels of complexity. The descriptions of cultural differences between the Russians, Mongolians, and Chinese is amusing. The use of Chinese as a descriptor is interesting in itself as the settings in Inner Mongolia wouldn't naturally mean a huge number of Han Chinese were present so probably refers instead to Mongolian Chinese.
The film is told in the authentic original language - mainly Mongolian. There are subtitles. The DVD Extra shows some snippets of the Russian language production (with English subtitles) which seems to have had a not very impressive Russian dubbing.
Mongol is a truly epic film. It is visually beautiful and feels viscerally authentic. Genghis Khan himself is masterfully portrayed and his relationship with the beautiful Borte is very nice. It is an unusual production given the Russianness of it all but it works extremely well and should be extremely highly recommended.