Representing the cinematic achievement of Kazakhstan (yes, it exists outside of Borat) at last year’s Academy Awards, Mongol, a film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, explores the rise to power of infamous warlord Genghis Kahn. Despite eventually losing out on Oscar gold to The Counterfeiters via Austria, those involved still have much to be pleased about. Even though it only graced as many as 253 screens at any one time, Mongol still managed to gross $5.7 million domestically, in addition to a healthy overseas sum. Still, one can only speculate that, had the film been released closer to awards season (first US release date was not until June 6th), it would have fared better at the box office.
If there is one thing specifically that I have come to learn about Russian directors is that they are capable of producing some of the most beautiful and iconic imagery ever put to celluloid. From the highly influential, propaganda-filled pictures of Sergei Eisenstein to the haunting masterpieces of Andrei Tarkovsky, the country’s auteurs, at least those most exposed, always seem capable of producing a splendid visceral feast. Because of this, it came as no surprise that Mongol bears such trademarks. The film showcases beautiful landscapes and barren meadows in order to fully capture its purported time period. It is certainly a rather sumptuous visual display, one that would certainly have benefitted from a more thematically congruent plot.
The story begins as our lead ventures with his father, at the tender age of nine, to select a bride from a now rival tribe in a gesture of peace. The film offers many other examples of such ritualistic practices which nicely paint how thinly developed society was at such a juncture. Cultural practices reigned supreme and are, for the most part, shown great respect amongst the traditionally proud Mongolians. This formative background is the canvas that sees the formation of Genghis (then known as Temudjin) as he grows into a driven, idealistic conqueror. However, instead of painting him as a bloodthirsty warmonger, Bodrov opts to illustrate his actions as being those of compassion and longing. The love for his wife Borte often represents an ulterior motive to his stated reasoning. This is certainly a bold portrayal of one of the most infamous fighters in history and probably is a bit irresponsible in just how saintly he is shown to be. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting notion.
Noticeably off-key is the film’s final blood-soaked finale. At this point, we have already been shown a handful of bloody battles (the film is about Genghis Kahn after all), but none as large in scale as this. Of course, such bloodletting can get tiresome but this is far from a chief complaint of mine. The ending is forcefully rushed, likely due to Bordov’s wanting to initially make the film into a trilogy. The last act feels like the contents of at least one of these shelved sequels condensed into twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes that scarcely shows concern about content but instead focuses on ending with an emotionally hollow bang. Visually it succeeds but my guess is that many viewers will be left wanting more, and rightfully so.
Cast: Asano Tadanobu, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun and Odnyam Odsuren
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Screenwriters: Arif Aliyev and Sergei Bodrov
Producers: Sergey Selyanov, Sergei Bodrov and Anton Melnick
Genre: Action/drama; Mongolian-language, subtitled
Rating: R for sequences of bloody warfare
Running time: 120 min.