Review of "Mongol": Poking About in Mongolia

I understand that the film “Mongol” is the first part of a planned trilogy on the life of Genghis Khan. Let us hope that the subsequent offerings will do better justice to this great tough guy of history. There is much to admire in this first installment, but its often slow-poke pacing and head-scratching plot holes will have you checking the display menu to see how many more hours are remaining before you even reach the halfway point.

Russian director Sergei Bodrov begins his semi-historical film in flashback. Temujin Khan – played, oddly enough, by a Japanese rather than a Mongolian actor – is leader of one of the Mongol tribes, and a sideshow captive in a Chinese provincial capital. Temujin is the son of a Mongol clan chief, who is killed when Temujin is a young boy. Being the rightful heir, he is hunted by those who have turned against him and his widowed mother, and like many a hero in one of the Greek tragedies, he must make allies when and where he can. Also like one of those heroes, his memory is long, and his desire for revenge will eventually cause his enemies to pay for what they have done to him, his family, and his clan.

Departing from the prison sequence and returning to Temujin’s youth at the age of 9, Bodrov moves the story along with what at first is a forgiveably plodding pace. For those of us not hugely familiar with the history and culture of Mongolia – and I number myself among such persons – Bodrov makes sure we understand both the similarities and the significant differences to our Western society in this corner of the globe, and in doing so wants us to understand that grasping some small part of it requires our patience and our time. It is we, not Temujin, who are fish out of water here: he knows not only the land but the ways of its people, animals, and gods, and is a man cut from the whole cloth of that world.

Once the film has caught us up to where we began, we return to the now-enslaved Temujin, housed in a cell perched between two tower bastions, with a plank and rope bridge strung across the chasm so that the curious may come and look at him. Below the large grated window into his cell hangs a sign mocking him as the man who dared to say he could destroy the Tangut Kingdom. One is immediately struck by the parallel to Christ on the Cross, complete with titulus.

Yet as it turns out, how Temujin ended up in this position is not entirely clear. For despite giving the viewer information and symbolism which would, in a better film, be neatly tied up, Bodrov fails to connect the dots in the story in many instances. In the particular instance of the imprisonment, unlike Christ’s admission of his Divinity to Caiphas which led to his inevitable execution, Temujin never declares that he will bring down the Tangut; he is made an example of, but there is no statement, boast, or action on his part, as the picture unfolds, which would have warranted the governor of the capital to put him in this position. It is but one example of a script rich with Greek tragedy, Biblical parallels, and Eastern symbolism which falters on Bodrov’s over-attention to appearances at the expense of plot.

In another scene the young Temujin, on the run from assassins, falls through the ice into a frozen lake, and the camera shows him disappearing into the murky depths. Yet with no visual or vocal explanation, in the next scene we see Temujin out on the ground, perfectly dry, where he is discovered and saved by Jamukha, another young Mongol boy. This sense of disjointedness or bad editing, which occurs at many points throughout the film, is only heightened by cuts from one scene to the next in which the camera fades and the next scene begins at a pace which is far too quick. Neither the eye nor the brain are allowed a moment to pause and absorb before the next sequence begins, but this quick transitioning is not accompanied by a comparable sense of speed in the movie.

It is perhaps understandable that this would be the case for “Mongol” is, in visual terms, as sweeping a film as the stunning, untouched scenery of Mongolia itself. Apart from the town in which Temujin is imprisoned, there are no urban settlements whatsoever: only the occasional cottage or yurt encampment. It brings to mind not only the great American Westerns of directors like John Ford, but also the examination of native culture at once at home in but simultaneously dominated by its landscape in “A Man Called Horse”.

Like the latter film, “Mongol” has battle sequences and chase scenes a-plenty, enough to satisfy anyone with a lust for blood and rippling horseflesh. Men get impaled or maimed enough times that one is astounded there were enough people left to fight the final war between Temujin and his former blood brother Jamukha, which is the film’s climax and what will cement Temujin’s transformation into Genghis Khan. There is perhaps too much of a reliance on the effect of hitting an artery at full pump, with the expelling blood glittering away from the victim like a spray of rubies in sunshine, but then again no one ever accused the Mongols of being hemophobic.

Unfortunately, Bodrov in several instances seems to be copying and pasting certain shots and ideas almost directly out of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This is of course interesting for film fans, as it demonstrates what a powerful influence Jackson’s work has had on an international audience of filmmakers trying to make epic films. Yet the mind seems to withdraw from the film at hand when these instances arise, and reflect back on the same scene in the “Rings” cycle. One sequence in particular is so reminiscent of one of King Theoden in the Golden Hall of Medusel that I laughed aloud when the camera zoomed in on the character of Temujin as he turns to the camera.

“Mongol” has many of the necessary ingredients that go into the best of epic filmmaking: a titanic historical figure, exotic cultures, royal intrigue, vast landscapes, a passionate love story, and lots of warriors shooting things. Getting that mixture right, however, requires more than just stirring all the ingredients together and letting them coagulate in a pot. If the filmmaker is not careful, the entire stew can come off as heavy and soporific, or the balance of flavors can be thrown off by some undercooked portion, and this is what has happened here. It is not a terrible dish, but it could have been much better with a bit more overall care.

Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) gets poked
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