MONGOL co-written and directed by Sergei Bodrov, with Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun and Odnyam Odsuren. An Alliance release. 120 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (June 6). For venues and times, see Movies, page 96. Rating: NNN
Cinema has never been kind to Genghis Khan. John Wayne’s The Conqueror and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example, played fast and ridiculously loose with the Mongolian warlord’s wild life. Neither has cinema been kind to Kazakhstan – thank you, Borat Sagdiyev.
In gallops Mongol, teeth bared and swords slashing, to make amends. The film, a sweeping 12th-century epic as ambitious as its continent-conquering subject, is equal parts adventure, love story, history lesson and hagiography. It’s also the first Kazakh film to be nominated for an Oscar (in the best foreign language film category).
Directed and co-written by veteran Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, Mongol traces – a bit too earnestly – the rise of one of history’s most feared rulers.
While I don’t doubt that Genghis Khan was something more than the bloodthirsty tyrant he is often portrayed as, I don’t believe he was as beneficent as Mongol makes him out to be. Mercy is not a quality associated with the man who slaughtered thousands in order to unite most of Asia under his rule.
Tadanobu Asano (Zatoichi) is all stoic calm as Temudjin, the man who would become Khan, and his surprising stillness is a bit jarring given the fierceness of the real-life Khan. He seems spurred to action only by his wife, Börte (beautifully played by newcomer Khulan Chuluun), who’s as much military adviser as bride.
Put simply, there’s not enough Conan in this Khan.
Long stretches are spent on Temudjin’s childhood, and I lost count of how many times he was captured, enslaved, escaped and recaptured. There are huge gaps in both story and logic: one moment he’s frollicking in a field with his family, the next he’s racing across the steppes for a pack of smokes, er, rallying an army to battle his blood brother and now enemy (Honglei Sun). Thankfully, we’re spared a Braveheart-style inspirational speech delivered on horseback.
But somehow Mongol still manages to be rousing. And by the end – an all-too-brief clash between two great armies cut short by a few claps of thunder – Temudjin has become Genghis Khan and the stage is set for a sequel about how he bent most of Asia to his will.
Maybe they’ll call it Mongol II: The Wrath Of Khan.