In 1172, young Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) learned of humankind's baser instincts when his father, the Khan Esugei (Ba Sen), was poisoned by a rival. Esugei's right-hand-man Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) then proceeded to steal his former Khan's goods and vowed to kill Temudjin when he reached adulthood. Facing fierce hardships, including enslavement by the Tangut Garrison Chief, Temudjin (Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano, "Last Life in the Universe," "Café Lumière," "Vital") grows up determined to establish rules of law that would govern the life of each and every of his fellow "Mongol."
Cowriter (with Arif Aliyev, "Prisoner of the Mountains")/director Sergei Bodrov ("Prisoner of the Mountains," "Bear's Kiss") brings back the cinematic epic of old with his revisionist view of Genghis Khan. At its heart, "Mongol" is a love story based in fact that portrays Temudjin as a fair and visionary leader of men. Working in actual locations, often with 1,000 extras on horseback, Bodrov's epic biographical tale is a thrilling and authentic feeling journey. There is no John Wayne or CGI to be seen in this Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee.
Temudjin learns a lot by observing the shifting loyalties and partnerships among varying Mongol tribes. His father hopes to repair the rift he created with the Merkits when he stole a Merkit warrior's bride (Temudjin's mother Oelun played by Aliya) by taking his ten-year-old son to pick his own bride from their tribe, but Temudjin's head is turned along the way by a young girl bold enough to address him first, Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat, the radiant Khulan Chuluun as an adult). Although theirs is a providential (and surpisingly modern!) union, they will often be separated. From their betrothal until the time Temudjin returns, he has left home to avoid capture by Targutai, been saved by Mongol prince Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar), been captured by Targutai, then freed from a heavy wooden yoke by the great god Tengri. No sooner do the couple return to his family, than his mother's first husband, Chiledu (Sai Xing Ga), raids and captures Borte in revenge. Temudjin asks his blood brother, now powerful khan Jamukha (Chinese actor Honglei Sun, "The Road Home," "Triangle"), to help him get his bride back. Jamukha sees one woman as good as the next but agrees to help - the following year - and only if the reason for war is kept secret. The spectacularly brutal war that ensues causes another divide between the two men when Temudjin goes against popular Mongol practice by dividing war spoils among his men. Jamukha, who had hoped to team up with Temudjin, instead sees his friend go off on his own with some of his soldiers to boot - men have defected for Temudjin's fairer treatment. Things come to a head when Jamukha's brother Taichar (Bu Ren) tries to right the wrong by stealing Temudjin's horses, but he is killed and Jamukha is forced to retaliate against his beloved (and undermanned) brother. Defeated, Temudjin is sold into slavery and kept in a cage so that he cannot fulfill a monk's (Sun Ben Hon) prophecy that he will bring down the Tangut Kingdom. In exchange for later leniency, that same Monk sets out on a journey that will kill him in order to bring a message to Borte. Borte, whose first son Juchi has been accepted by Temudjin despite his Merkit paternity, once again must act as another man's wife and bear his child in order to get back to Temudjin and free him. Once the family is reunited, however, Borte realizes her man must once again leave in order to fulfill his destiny by uniting Mongol tribes and going to war with his former friend in order to become the greatest Khan.
Bodrov knows his way around a battle sequence. He makes you feel the brute force of the strikes, the scimitars slicing through skin, the heavy weight of warfare. Blood sprays through the air but there is no explicit gore (excepting a non-battle scene when Temudjin escapes by bashing a guard's head in with his yoke). He also visualizes Temudjin's battle strategies. "Mongol" was filmed (widescreen cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov) in actual locations ranging from desolate and arid to mountainous and majestic, but none are more striking that the battlefield where Temudjin and Jamukha enter Merkit territory, green fields coated with jagged rock hazards which hide their enemy. The changing landscapes create a stunning montage as the Monk walks from the border deep into the Mongolian Steppes. Interiors are few, but art direction is significant, showcasing Jamukha's changed stature when we first meet him as an adult by the ornateness of his yurt to the utter despair of Temudjin's caged humiliation, suspended above ravenous guard dogs with a convenient rope bridge for those who wish to torment him. In addition to the political plotting and love story, the scripters use touchstones to ground the epic - a raven's wishbone the ten-year-old Temudjin gives to Börte, the grey wolf which hovers at the Sacred Mountain outside altar to Tengri. Music is a mixture of the low thrum of Mongolian throat singing to moody violin.
The acting is superb. Japanese Asano (his father warns him to pick a bride with narrow eyes as round eyes allow the entry of evil spirits) is observant, his intelligent appraisal apparent on his yet stoic face. In contrast, Chinese Honglei Sun is animated, full of humor and bravado. His is a terrific performance and the two have great chemistry. Non-professional Khulan Chuluun is both naturally stunning and capable of expressing the resolve and wisdom of a great leader's advisor. Aliya gives Oelun a mother's fierce protectiveness. The child actors are all distinct and reflections of their later characters.
Genghis Khan amassed the largest empire in world history. Bodrov's film is up to depicting him. I hope he's considering "Mongol II" to complete the story.
Robin did not see this film.
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