How the East Was Won: The Romance Of Genghis Khan
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008; Page C01
Tadanobu Asano as the conqueror, a warrior with heart in Sergei Bodrov's epic "Mongol." (Stv Via Associated Press)
Perhaps the most reliable modern empirical gauge of a movie's effectiveness is this: How fast does it send you to Wikipedia? The faster, the better, because that means you've got to know more.
In the case of "Mongol," the answer was: very fast, close to a new record. It was about nine minutes from theater to computer. Add another two minutes as I tried to figure out the random distribution of h's in the name Ghenghis Khanh, or possibly Hgenghis Khhhhan or even Genghis Kahn (it turns out to be Genghis Khan), and I learned that "Mongol," while a hell of a good time at the movies in its chronicle of the first 30 years of the man who went from slave to conqueror, is more romantic and less squalid than the reality.
This is because the Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov -- his big international hit was "Prisoner of the Mountains" in 1997 -- has clearly followed John Ford's advice from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," which was something like, "When confused by the legend or the facts, make the movie about the legend. That's where the box office is."
The result is a wallow in old movie pleasures, full of battles, flying dust, thousands of men on horseback, beautiful women, treachery, slaughter, really cool hats, and even more slaughter. Moreover, it has a kind of morphic connection to the American imagination, in that, while watching the comings and goings of these fleet, horse-borne, extremely handsome warrior-archers and warrior-archer women across undulating grassy infinity, it's hard not to see the Lakota Sioux or the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers or the Mescalero Apache in the mind's eye. When you consider that Temudjin (played by Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano), as the man who would become Genghis was once known, controlled the world from China to Bulgaria, you think: Okay, that's one for the Indians.
But when the big-budget, cast o' thousands Russian epic begins, he's a pudgy-faced, imperious 9-year-old kid (the excellent Odnyam Odsuren) on his way to pick out a bride, accompanied by his father, a minor lord. The place is central Mongolia in the 12th century, which is to say, really, no place, nowhere. It's grasslands forever and a day, and human presence is marked only occasionally by the appearance of a cluster of yurts. One can see a hunter-gatherer existence in full flower as everything is built of leather and bone and nothing is permanent because at any moment the clan may have to up and follow the -- er, not buffalo, the yak, I'm guessing. Yet it's far from primitive: A complex society of clan networks and obligations has sprung up, and the marriage being set up has more political purpose than social. Love's got nothing to do with it.
But immediately young Temudjin, who knows his own mind, shows his emperor's will, demanding of his father that the selection take place now, that is, at a way-station among a minor clan rather than at a more powerful, politically appropriate camp. Temudjin has seen Börte, and that's enough for him.
It's somewhat akin to believing that the Trojan War was fought for Helen to believe, as the movie theorizes, that Temudjin conquered the world for Börte, but both Diane Kruger, who played Helen in "Troy," and Khulan Chuluun, who plays Börte in "Mongol," make you believe it. Beautiful, talented actresses, the two have that little something extra that makes us boys say: You know, I'd raze a few cities and execute a few prisoners for a date with this one.
So that core of love, lust and touchy-feely-more-touchy- lots-of-touchy is what drives "Mongol," more than politics or land-lust, and the surprise is that the movie is as much about Börte's cunning and relentlessness in dealing with the obstacles between her and Temudjin (such as five mythical years in a Chinese prison) as about conquest. In fact, a better title might have been: "Genghis Khan: A Love Story.
Still, there's a lot of guy stuff. When the young man's father is poisoned, his clan is dispersed, prey to stronger clans. For the first of several times he is captured and imprisoned. Instead of wilting under the challenge of slavery, he grows stronger, more cunning and more virile (he's a little like the proto-Conan, which is perhaps a way of saying that Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, modeled his hero on Temudjin, not the other way around). He escapes several times, each time returning to Börte, each time recaptured. At one point he makes an alliance with another noble youth, Jamukha, who becomes his "brother," thus setting up a famous Genghis legend.
They ride, they fight, they ride some more, they fight some more. Bodrov loves to watch as thousands of horsemen clash on the plains, not a smokepole in sight (it's 1207, after all) so the heavy lifting is done with blade and spear. Whoever was on the electronic blood spurt machine probably got overtime or at least a bonus, for there's a lot of arterial spray and some wet loogies of plasma that look like jellyfish sailing through the air.
In the end, we're about a third of the way through the great Khan's life; he hasn't even begun to take down the cities of Cathay or spread his seed (his genetic traces are found in about 8 percent of Central Asia and 0.5 percent of the male population today, according to some researchers, meaning the guy did even better than Warren Beatty!). That suggests two sequels. I, for one, can't wait.
Mongol (124 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and sequences of bloody warfare. In Mongolian with subtitles.
By JOE MORGENSTERN
The Wall Street Journal
June 6, 2008; Page W1
'Mongol' Brings Style and Sumptuous Scale to Genghis Khan Saga
If the Genghis Khan of "Mongol" were running for president, he'd give Hillary, Obama or McCain a gallop for their money. Sergei Bodrov's thrilling steppe epic upgrades the brutal head of those bloodthirsty hordes to the status of visionary. This Mongol of all Mongols is a modern, merciful leader ahead of his time -- 800 years ahead of his time. He's so cool and self-contained in his sense of personal destiny that it's no wonder scads of nomads follow him.
The director, who wrote the script with Arif Aliyef, might have called it "Temudgin," though that doesn't quite sing as a selling title. Genghis Khan was born with that name, in 1162, and Temudgin's emergence from boyhood into full and fearless manhood is the subject of the movie, the first part of a projected trilogy. The production was Kazakhstan's entry for a best-foreign-film Oscar in the most recent Academy Awards, but it's a huge, and hugely impressive, international enterprise.
Mr. Bodrov is the Russian filmmaker best known to American audiences for the superb 1997 drama "Prisoner of the Mountain." The adult Temudgin is played -- with remarkable intensity -- by the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. Honglei Sun, who's Chinese, is the hero's blood brother and mortal enemy, the mercurial, funny and frightening Jamukha. Temudgin's wife, a beautiful woman named Borte, is played by the movie's only Mongolian star, Khulan Chuluunn, and it's her first time in front of a camera. She's a great argument for native talent, and against acting classes.
I don't know the Mongolian word for panache, but "Mongol's" got plenty of it. The battle scenes are as notable for their clarity as their intensity; we can follow the strategies, get a sense of who's losing and who's winning. The physical production is sumptuous. (The film was shot by Sergey Trofimov, who is Russian, and Rogier Stoffers, who is Dutch.) And through all of Temudgin's extravagant trials and hard-won triumphs, there's a sense of a singular child serving as father to a powerful man whose power flows from his instinctive devotion to justice, and to his wife. It's an austere epic that turns the stuff of pulp adventure into a persuasive take on ancient history.
Reviewer: Will Lawrence
An epic account of the rise of Genghis Khan (Asano), charting his journey from his ninth birthday, in 1172 AD, through to 1206 AD, the moment he unites the Steppe tribes and embarks on his staggering journey of conquest.
Drawn from the one extant piece of original source material - The Secret History Of The Mongols, a curious blend of myth, legend and apparent fact - Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated Mongol is an impressive piece of epic filmmaking. The ancient manuscript, like many sagas, is somewhat repetitive, moving swiftly from a mythical ‘origin’ story into the early life of Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) - or Temudzhin as he was originally known – which unfolds in a seemingly endless cycle of triumph and loss. Life on the ancient steppe was dominated by tribal warfare, as horsemen constantly battered one another in a bid to capture livestock, women, and good grazing for their herds.
For Bodrov, this presents a challenge. He conceived the film as the first part of a trilogy, and it extends no further than the moment when Temudzhin vanquishes Jamucha (Honglei Sun), his former blood brother, to position himself on the cusp of greatness. The director sifts through the multiple layers of betrayal and revenge that lead to that point, a sequence that could disintegrate into a bloody, martial monotony.
Thankfully, the Secret History contains an intriguing chapter in which a rival clan kidnaps Temudzhin’s intended spouse, Borte (Khulan Chuluun), and the director develops her role to the point where she plays a pivotal part in her husband’s political and spiritual evolution. Mongol offers a considered portrait of Genghis, with Borte’s presence adding depth to the warlord’s emotional makeup; if there is simplicity in his and his brethren’s actions, they are simple folk. Bodrov also benefits immeasurably from his leading man’s performance, with Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu bringing a confidence and quietude to the part, which in turn adds gravitas to his epic journey. Like many sagas, Mongol carries its principal player through a period of shadow, when he is imprisoned by the Tangut kingdom. He endures his privations with grace and dignity. When he emerges, freed by Borte’s cunning, his goes on to fulfil his destiny, his journey painted on a truly epic canvas. The cinematography, rendering the stark, unworldly beauty of the Central Asian Steppe, is astounding.
With its breathtaking landscapes, bloody battles, bitter betrayals and an aching love story, Mongol is a sumptuously crafted epic.