Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this past year, Mongol opens in New York and Los Angeles today and will slowly roll out to other cities in the coming weeks. Here is our review from when we saw it at the Philadelphia Film Festival earlier this year.
The first in a proposed trilogy of films charting the life of the warlord Genghis Khan, Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol feels like an echo of the great historical epics from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Mongol strips away the stereotypes often attached to Genghis Khan, instead presenting a multi-layered leader whose iron will was forged by the circumstances of his up bringing.
The film opens with ten-year old Temudgin, the boy who will one day be known as Genghis Khan, journeying with his father to select a bride from a rival Mongol tribe, whom his father had wronged years earlier. On the journey, they stop to rest at the camp of another tribe, where Temudgin meets a young girl, Borte, and declares that he wishes to marry her. Amused by his son’s bravado, he agrees, even though having Temudgin take a bride from the rival tribe would cement a peace with his own tribe.
On the way home, Temudgin’s father is poisoned, dying in his son’s arms. Although by Mongol tradition, Temudgin would become tribal leader, the warriors refuse to follow the orders of a boy and desert Temudgin’s family, vowing to return and kill Temudgin when he is old enough to put up an honorable fight. To keep his family safe, Temudgin flees, roaming the countryside, before being captured and put into slavery. After many escape attempts over the years, Temudgin finally makes his way to freedom and sets out to find Borte and get revenge on the warrior who took his place as rightful head of their clan.
Wide open vistas form the backdrop of this powerful tale of revenge and conquest, inviting comparisons to the films of David Lean. And while the film may recall vintage epic filmmaking, it also bears the imprint of more modern blockbusters as well. The final battle sequence features slow-motion action and an accompanying soundtrack that possesses more than a passing resemblance to Peter Jackson’s work in his Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
The film makes many narrative leaps early on that at first may appear to be sloppy storytelling. It is as if Bodrov can’t figure out a way to show how young Temudgin made one of his escapes from slavery, so he decided to just arbitrarily cut to him running through the snow. Later, Temudgin is seen crossing a frozen lake, only to have his weight crack the ice, plunging him into the freezing water below. The film merely fades to black and then fades back up on the boy laying face down in the snow, with no mention of what transpired between the two incidents. But as the film further unspools, it starts to hint that perhaps Temudgin is being watched over by his god Tengril, being guided and protected. Temudgin’s divine protection and destiny comes into play in the film’s climactic battle when a sudden change in the weather favor’s Temudgin’s forces.
One narrative leap that can’t be explained away as easily is the jump in time towards the end of the film from when Temudgin was leading a small group of warriors to the leader of one of the two armies in the final battle. Although the final battle sees the completion of Temudgin’s unification of the Mongol tribes, more of the process would have been appreciated.