Though there's little historical data regarding the late-12th- and early-13th-century Mongol leader Genghis Khan, he is known as a marauding military aggressor who brutally expanded his empire throughout much of Asia, killing millions along the way. Loosely based on research that supports a more layered vision of this warrior, coupled with director Sergei Bodrov's liberal imagination, Mongol is an effort to humanize the larger-than-life figure, adding complexity and nuance. As told here, Genghis Khan (born Temudjin) was a hunted and dehumanized boy-man turned revolutionary. During his life's journey, he was an orphan, a slave, and on everyone's hit list. As an adult he was at once deeply religious -- praying to the deities with passion -- and advanced in his sexual politics. His beloved wife, Bรถrte, was an equal partner, and when she was kidnapped, against the advice of the tribe's authorities, he went to war to save her. This was unheard of. He then lovingly raised her child, conceived through rape during her captivity, as his own. And most striking, he is depicted as a radical who, contrary to received wisdom, brought law to the land for the first time.
Whether or not Mongol is factually accurate, it is an intriguing character study and a visually stunning epic set in the remotest regions of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. The cinematography evokes the bleak lives of the nomadic Mongol tribes, as they set up camp or travel across the arid landscape on horseback. The long silences punctuated by sounds of nature, awash in climatic extremes, bring to life a time and place long gone, setting the stage for an ancient legend. The horse-mounted battle scenes with the proverbial cast of thousands are extraordinary. It's easy to see why Mongol received an Oscar nomination this year for best foreign film.
The performances are memorable, most pointedly Tadanobu Asano's Temudjin. A Japanese actor who is well-known in Japan's independent film scene, Asano brings an impressive emotional vocabulary to his portrayal that marries a range of contradictory feelings. He is always the defiant soldier who will be second in command to no one, including his old "blood brother," Jamukha (Honglei Sun), who has beaten him in battle and enslaved him. In chains, encrusted in dirt, and mocked by everyone, one can feel that rage smoldering -- yet his dignity remains intact. Simultaneously, he feels disappointed and betrayed by Jamukha. And, throughout it all, Temudjin's adoration and respect for Bรถrte (Khulan Chuluun) is a constant. He confers with her and flirts with her. The sexual chemistry between the actors is palpable.
Much of the credit has to go to newcomer Chuluun, whose Bรถrte is charming, self-assured, and as resolute as Temudjin, whom she risks her life to save. It's hard to believe Chuluun is a student who had never acted before. Kudos also goes to Chinese actor Sun. In smaller roles, Bu Ren as Jamukha's vindictive brother is notable, as is Amadu Mamadakov, who plays Targutai, a soldier suffocating on his own resentment. The two young actors (Odnyam Odsuren and Bayartsetseg Erdenebat) who play Temudjin and Bรถrte as children are also terrific, capturing prepubescent innocence while hinting at the steely determination that will define the characters as adults.
In the end, Mongol is perhaps most noteworthy in making a story rooted in antiquity resonate with modernity.
Genre: Historical epic
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Written by: Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun