Award-winning Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov has fashioned a compelling drama about the forces and circumstances that shaped the life of legendary warrior Genghis Khan. Shot on locations in Kazakhstan and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the story conveys the eerie beauty and the chilling terror of the steppes that nomadic communities roamed during the 12th century. Without any type of irony or digital effects, Mongol, the first installment in a planned trilogy, tells the story of a solitary man’s rise to a position of great power.
Mongol depicts the beginnings of that ferocious Mongolian ruler who conquered half the world, Genghis Khan, here known by his birth name, Temudjin. According to the film, Genghis’s rise to power was conveniently cut from the same cloth whereby a mythological Chosen One suffers estrangement from his family, overcomes adversity, and because he was forged in the fire of the gods, emerges as the unifier and leader of men. At his side in these efforts are a few allies and, above all, his wife, Borte, to whom he is betrothed as a child and to whom he remains loyal in spite of many setbacks and temptations. When she is kidnapped by marauding Merkits, Temudgin musters a small army to bring her back.
Spectacular production design by artist Dashi Namdakov and handsome folkloric costumes by Karin Lohr keep the pic easy on the eyes. Lush score by Tuomas Kantelinen is hauntingly supplemented with the ethno-folk stylings of Mongolian band Altan Urgan. The film is magnetically centered by the charismatic performance of Asano as Temudjin. The first image of the film is Temudjin, held in captivity. Asano, through the bars of his cage, stares down the camera and pierces the audience with the intense stillness and power of his eyes. Although it is beyond the filmmakers’ control, their work isn’t fresh or daring enough to make any potential audience indifference feel like a loss.
Mongol is presented with such vitality, passion, and intensity that as an object of cinematic contemplation it cuts across critical prevarications like a head-lopping saber. There’s never enough detail to make these historical figures come to life in a compelling way. Bodrov aims to dazzle, and he does, but the film’s history has already been called into question and the dramatic relationships offered up in his screenplay are thoroughly rote. Lastly, the film goes too far in glorifying Khan. He is portrayed as a great father, a man who cares deeply for his wife, and also as a man dedicated to his tribesmen. But where is the Khan we have heard of? Where is the balance between noble leader and violent warrior? The film sorely lacks in even the faintest foreshadowing of the intimidating image that Khan became, the Khan that got me interested in watching this movie in the first place.