“Never betray your Khan”
Genghis Khan, sympathetic king of the people? If Sergei Bodrov is to be believed: yes. His tale of Khan’s ascent to power from childhood, Монгол [Mongol], tells of how he kept his ideals and the laws of Mongolia intact to unite a country from greed. After a battle, he takes an even share as those fighting under him; he respects his men and their families above survival. “Fight your enemy until the end” becomes one of his rules, and he himself lives by it. Sure, as one man says, maybe he’ll just take everything after the next battle, but at this early point in his life, Temudjin stands for justice and decency in war times. Unafraid to kill, he is still a man in love with his wife and the country he fights for. Fearless, this man rolls with the punches as his wife is stolen twice from his clutch; he becomes mortal enemies with his best friend and blood brother; and even lives as a slave. Never giving up, Temudjin always bides his time until he can strike his enemies and show his people that he can bring them to the forefront of the world. “One day everyone will speak Mongolian.” Lofty goals for sure, but watching this interpretation, you can’t stop yourself from believing that it could happen.
Bodrov is fearless himself shooting this two-hour film in Mongolian with an abundance of blood and gore. While some moments feel cartoony with splashes a la 300 or the video game Mortal Kombat, the feel still maintains a high level of realism. The cinematography is just plain gorgeous to behold with beautiful framing as well as slow-motion sequences adding to the majestic quality nature has to offer. Close-ups abound adding a level of intrigue rather than just framing conversations conventionally at mid-range. We are thrust into the story, peering at every ornate detail on display. Costumes, scenery, and props are fabulously rendered allowing the style and artistry to break through and enhance the story going on inside of it.
Temudjin is a man of the people who knows how to lead. Wherever he goes, people defect from other armies to follow his clan and take him as a master. Whether it is because of his natural tendency to come out victoriously or that he truly is a just a fair leader, none can match the power he wields without a weapon. From the beginning he was feared and not shy to play on that fact. Upon his father’s murder and what should have been his inheritance of the Khan mantel, a rival decides to kill him as well and become ruler of the group. Mongols do not kill children, as a rule, until they grow to a certain height, so Targutai must wait. That time only allows Temudjin to grow older and more experienced and to run away, finding a kindred spirit in Jamukha for whom he grows so close to that they call each other brother. These two discover that they are the strongest ones in the country, but cannot work together as they both prefer to be their own masters. After the killing of Jamukha’s real brother at the hands of one of Temudjin’s men, the bond of comradery dissolves, as they become enemies, fighting to be the Khan to rule all of Mongolia. However, the level of respect they have for each other never allows the title of brother to be thrown to the side. The two may be battling against one another, but it doesn’t mean all that they had been through and all that they admire in the other needs to be forgotten.
Jamukha is played by Honglei Sun and is perhaps my favorite character in the entire film. He is always in control of the bigger army, but when he looks over to his rival he never relinquishes the smile and knowledge that his brother will not be easily overcome. Temudjin himself is stoic perfection on behalf of actor Tadanobu Asano. Beaten but never broken, Asano exudes a stillness of control even when behind the bars of a cage. Always thinking five steps ahead, his fearlessness doesn’t allow for worry or doubt. He is prepared for death and has been since he was a child—nothing can scare him—not even the thunder God Tengri, because defeat is a journey itself. As long as he never gives up, that journey will be pushed off until the future. As for his strong-legged love Börte, Khulan Chuluun is magnificent. This is a woman of immense mental strength, willing to do whatever it takes for her family. Despite being captured and mothering two children out of wedlock, she never loses hope in her husband to recover her and make her proud. A pro with the knife, Börte is not one to cross or let your guard down in front of. Much like Temudjin, she is always thinking of her next move, ready to escape with her children and be reunited with her master and lover.
While the cinematography and overall look of the film lends the quieter moments a stunning beauty, one cannot forget the epic battles put on display. These are filmed without the help of computers to multiply three soldiers a thousand times. One scene needed 1,500 horses and riders to work and having it all be real adds to the sequence immensely. The blood spurts and gore is added afterwards, but it only enhances the maneuvering and fighting happening onscreen. Temudjin’s capture by Jamukha at about the midway point of the story is my favorite. One man against an army, the soon to be Genghis Khan never tires despite injury, continually swinging his sword at those advancing on him with spears until finally surrounded and subdued. It’s just one moment in a story spanning from Temudjin’s youth to control of a kingdom. A story that is fascinating to hear and glorious to behold.
Монгол [Mongol] 8/10 | ★ ★ ★