Mongol

In the sumptuously mounted historical epic “Mongol,” arguably his biggest, most technically accomplished film to day, Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov illuminates the life of the legendary warrior hero Genghis Khan. Masterfully blending action and emotion against arresting landscapes, Bodrov has made an exciting tale of survival, triumph, and love.

Based on research and scholarly accounts, the screenplay, co-written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, centers on the tumultuously dramatic and harrowing years of the ruler, who was born under the name of Temudgin in 1162. Boasting epic scale and stunning visuals that would make Kurosawa and David Lean proud, “Mongol” follows Temudgin from his perilous childhood to the battle that sealed his destiny, while not neglecting his personal and family life.

There have been other films about Genghis Khan, but I don't think any of them had come even close to matching the high level of skill that “Mongol” manifests in each and every department, from the storytelling to the acting, cinematography, editing, and evocative music.

The saga is divided into chapters, designated by big red titles that sum up the respective era in one sentence. The story begins in 1162, with the nine-year-old Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren) riding across the flat steppe alongside horsemen headed by his father Esugei (Ba Sen), a tribal leader, or khan. They are paying a visit to the Merkits, a fierce tribe whom Esugei crossed years back, when he kidnapped a Merkit warrior's wife, thus setting hatred and wish for bloody revenge. Aiming to make peace with his enemy, Esugei brings his young son, the child of the woman he had kidnapped, to choose a Merkit wife.

During the journey, Esugei stops at friendly clan for a rest, and Temudgin meets Borte (Bayartsetseg Erdenebat), a 10-year-old girl with mischievous eyes and the defiant confidence to challenge the regal visitor without being spoken to first. Intrigued by the unusual encounter with Borte, Temudgin thereupon informs his father that he wants to choose a bride from among this clan. Father knows that such a match would cause more trouble with the spurned Merkits, but though angry and disappointed he respects his son's resolve.

The next morning, in a poignant and humorous scene, Temudgin examines the clan's girls, all beautiful, line up for inspection, and makes his choice: Borte. In fact, Borte chooses Temudgin as much as he chooses her, a point to which the saga returns time and again later on, when the two are adults. Honored, Borte's father agrees to a match to take pace in five years. As the betrothed couple says goodbyes, Temudgin gives Borte a symbol of his dedication: a wishbone, which he promises will bring all of her desires.

It turns out to be the last peaceful moment Temudgin will know for years. While pausing for a meal on their way home, Esugei is poisoned by the leader of an enemy tribe and dies in his son's arms. Tradition decrees that Esugei's title pass to his oldest son, Temudgin. But Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), a resentful warrior, has other plans. As soon as Esegei's burial ceremony is over, Targutai orders his tribesmen to loot the dead khan's camp and seize horses and livestock. Temudgin's mother Oleun (Aliya) denounces the usurper, vowing that her son will avenge this betrayal. As the traitors leave, Targutai threatens to murder Temudgin as soon as he is grown.

Temudgin becomes a fugitive, unable to stay with his family if he is to survive. Alone and without a horse, he faces grim future as the seasons change and food grows scarcer. One morning, Temudgin is found unconscious in the snow by some boys, led by a cocky tribal prince, Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar). The two boys, each bright and self-assured, form a fast friendship. Pledging eternal loyalty, they become blood-brothers in a traditional ceremony.

Temudgin's respite with Jamukha's tribe is cut short when he discovered by Targutai. Captured and locked in a cage, with a heavy wooden yoke that confines his neck and extends past his shoulders, he can neither feed himself nor drink without his jailers' help. Despite his powerless state, the watchful child inspires respect and certain foreboding. Hence, when Targutai and his men break camp, Temudgin stoically resumes his solitary existence. He makes his way to the Sacred Mountain that's the rocky sanctuary of Tengri, God of the Blue Sky. Praying to be freed, he miraculously survives.

Temudgin eluded his enemy until 1186, the Year of the Fire Horse. As a man (now played by Asano Tadanobu), he faces death, when he's again caught by Targutai, now a khan. Despite dire circumstances, Temudgin is as defiant as a warrior should be, and he engineers an escape of speed and cunning.

Having secured a horse, he journeys to find his lifelong love, Borte (Khulan Chuluun), a lovely, spirited woman, joyously greeting the man she has been steadfastly awaited. Together, they set out in search of Temudgin's family, and after a happy sojourn with Oleun and Temudgin's siblings, the couple sets up their own camp on a plateau overlooking the verdant grasslands.

Melodrama ensues when word of Temudgin's marriage spreads among the Merkit tribe. Determined to achieve his revenge for the abduction of his wife, Oleun's first husband Chiledu (Sai Xing Ga) leads some warriors, intending to kidnap Borte. As Temudgin and Borte reach a river an arrow pierces his back; kicking his horse, Borte ensures that her husband will live at the price of her freedom.

In a subplot that recalls John Ford's “The Searchers,” once recovered, Temudgin pursues one obsessive goal, rescuing Borte from the Merkits. For help, he turns to his childhood blood-brother, Jamukha (Honglei Sun), who has become a prosperous, powerful khan. That Temudgin would not take a new wife is incomprehensible to Jamukhahe claims Mongols do not wage war over a woman. However, he agrees to lend his forces on the condition that the motive for war remains secret. It's Jamukha, not Temudgin, who sets the timetable for the attack, forcing Temudgin to wait.

When the attack arrives, it's merciless, with thousands of horsemen clashing in savage battle on the rocky fields of Merkit territory. Slashing through his opponents, Temudgin seizes a Merkit warrior's animal hide mask and disguises himself in order to penetrate the Merkit camp. There, he finds Borte.

The Merkits are vanquished, and their treasures and animals are seized by the victors. Like all Mongol chieftains, Jamukha takes most of the booty for himself. In contrast, Temudgin claims only a fraction of the remainder, distributing the rest among the warriors. Once again, Jamukha is bemused by his friend's unorthodox approach.

Temudgin is transformed into a fearless yet sensitive warrior, blessed with knowledge of his mind and iron will. Jamukha had envisioned a partnership between them, with Temudgin as second-in-command. But it's not in Temudgin's nature to be a subordinate, and he will not be dissuaded from returning to his ancestral lands with Borte and his small band of tribesmen.

Two of Jamukha's warriors then desert the tribe for Temudgin, who endorses the soldiers' freedom of choice. Accepting them into his clan infuriates Jamukha's brother Taichar (Bu Ren), who then organizes a raid on Temudgin's horses and is killed in the attempt. Taichar's death places Temudgin and Jamukha on an inevitable path of war. Temudgin's old enemy Targutai visits Jamukha to propose an alliance, and the latter accepts.

With two massive armies in pursuit, Temudgin places Borte and the other wives and children with a guard of warriors. Before parting, Borte entrusts him with the wishbone he gave her, a symbol of their love and a promise of return. Facing two enemies with reduced manpower, Temudgin leads a strategically brilliant fight, but he's captured by Jamukha, who confronts the fact that while defeated, Temudgin can never be conquered. Temudgin would ask for forgiveness, but he won't beg for his life, forcing Jamukha to turn him into a slave.

Thus begins a long, wretched period that finds Temudgin in chains, sold as property and caged in the Tangut kingdom. Treated like animal, encrusted with grime, and mocked, Temudgin endures his privations with rage, but his dignity remains intact. When Borte arrives to free him from bondage, Temudgin meets his destiny as the world's greatest warrior.

The saga ends on a satisfying note, with Temudgin the leader imposing the rule of law on the wanton tribes of the Mongol lands, conquering more territory than any other warrior before or since, living up to its title, the khan of all Mongols, Genghis Khan of the Great Steppe.

Deviating from standards depictions in films and books, “Mongol” offers a multi-layered portrait of the future conqueror, revealing him not as the brute of hoary stereotype, but as an inspiring, fearless visionary. Placing Khan in the broader historical and political contexts in which he operated results in a satisfying, fully-fleshed portraiture of an extraordinary warrior, and the foundation upon which much his greatness rested, his relationship with his wife Borte, his lifelong love and trusted advisor. In other words, “Mongol” is everything that Oliver Stone's pseudo-epic, “Alexander,” wanted to be.

Bodrov, who now lives in Kazakhstan, seems to know the geographical, historical, and personal landscapes well. “Mongol” is shot in the land that gave birth to Genghis Khan, transporting the viewers back to a distant, exotic period in history, to a nomad's open space, climatic extremes, and ever-present danger.

Bodrov is extremely well-served by his lead actor, the famous Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu (Kitano's “Zatoichi, Last Life in the Universe”), who renders a performance of powerful stillness, capturing the inner and outer forces that shaped a life, enabling a hunted boy to become a legendary conqueror. Asano's achievement is matched by his co-stars, including the radiant newcomer Khulan Chuluun as Temudgin's courageous and spirited wife Borte, and the Chinese actor Honglei Sun (Yimou's “The Road Home”) as the Mongol chieftain Jamukha, Temudgin's friend and enemy.

Credits

Picturehouse will release it theatrically in 2008.

A Picturehouse release (in U.S.) of a CTB Film Co., Andreevskiy Flag Co. production, in co-production with X-Filme Creative Pool, Kinofabrika.
Produced by Sergey Selyanov, Sergei Bodrov, Anton Melnik. Executive producers, Bulat Galimgereyev, Alec Schulmann, Bob Berney.
Co-producers, Stefan Arndt, Manuela Stehr, Gulnara Sarsenova, Zhang Xia.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov.
Screenplay, Arif Aliyev, Bodrov.
Camera: Sergey Trofimov, Rogier Stoffers. Editors, Zach Staenberg, Valdis Oskarsdottir.
Music: Tuomas Kantelinen; additional music, Altan Urag.
Production designer: Dashi Namdakov.
Costume designer: Karin Lohr.
Sound: Bruno Tarriere, Maxim Belovolov.
Stunt choreography, Zhaidarbek Kunguzhinov, Jung Doo Hong.

Running time: 126 Minutes.

Cast

Temudgin – Tadanobu Asano
Jamukha – Honglei Sun
Borte – Khulan Chuluun
Young Temudgin – Odnyam Odsuren
Young Jamukha – Amarbold Tuvinbayar
Young Borte – Bayartsetseg Erdenabat
Targutai – Amadu Mamadakov
Esugei – Ba Sen
Taichar – Bu Ren