Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan -- Shaping the myth

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007) • View trailer for Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for considerable violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.2.08
Buy DVD: Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan • Buy Blu-Ray: Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan [Blu-ray]

His eventual world-conquering prowess notwithstanding, Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov's sumptuous Mongol suggests that Genghis Khan never would have survived into seasoned adulthood without frequent divine intervention and considerable help from his wife.
Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano, left) and his beloved Börte (Khulan Chuluun)
snatch a moment to themselves before the arrival of yet another crisis, when the
future nation-builder once again will be forced to battle for his life.

None of which makes this story any less powerful, of course, although the delivery smacks more of myth-making than any scholarly attempt at historical accuracy.

I can't really blame Bodrov, who directed this handsomely mounted film and co-wrote the script with Arif Aliyev. One cannot check textbooks for events that took place in the late 12th century, and thus we're forced to accept Bodrov's interpretation of legend. This is annoying only a few times, specifically when the young warrior's certain death seems assured ... until the next moment, when "the Gods" effect a nifty rescue.

Indeed, the first time this happens — when young Temudgin, not yet khan of anything, crashes through thin ice and plunges into the chilly waters of a massive frozen lake — we can't help wondering if this is merely some sort of oddly symbolic dream ... because, in the next scene, the boy is prostrate on the frozen tundra, somehow having a) not sunk to the bottom due to the weight of his heavy protective clothing; b) gotten himself out of the lake; and c) avoided freezing to death once his sodden body was exposed to the frigid air above.

Bodrov doesn't show any of the details that a reasonable viewer might deem essential: The boy crashes through the ice and into the water, and then — poof! — he's back on land, nowhere near the lake, and rescued by a helpful young shepherd.

Hey, I'm willing to accept our hero being a "chosen one," but it'd be nice to have a little more clarity!

We modern Western viewers, in particular, are much more likely to be impressed by Bodrov's characterization of Börte, Temudgin's faithful, loving and impressively resourceful wife. Now, this is a woman to cherish: She saves her husband's bacon more times than I can count, and is willing to do anything — including selling herself — in order to remain at his side.

Temudgin, for his part, is progressive enough to heed her counsel on matters of importance; he also quite generously accepts as "his" the two children that Börte bears by other men, during the course of this story.

Indeed, you'll be hard-pressed to detect any disagreeable flaws in this characterization of Temudgin. Even as a nascent nation-builder, he's brutal but fair: the sort of leader who first ensures that his men and their families want for nothing, before taking his share of any plunder. Small wonder he attracts followers by the bushel.

But that's getting ahead of things.

After an eyeblink — and pointless — prelude set in 1192, which reveals our hero behind bars in some Asian town, the narrative bounces back a few decades, as 9-year-old Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren) is taken by his father, Esugei (Ba Sen), khan of his tribe, to "choose a bride." Esugei intends the boy to select a member of the ferocious Merkit tribe, in an effort to restore good relations, but the boy has other ideas: While stopping with friends along the way, Temudgin is drawn to young Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat).

Or, to be more precise, she chooses him.

Now betrothed and pledged to return once he has become a man, Temudgin and his father start back for their own lands. But then the boy's life takes its nasty, personality-shaping turn. Esugei dies on this journey, poisoned by a duplicitous stranger; after returning home with his father's body, a mercenary tribal rival takes over — Amadu Mama-dakov, as Targutai — and plunders everything of value in the village. He also very nearly takes the boy's life.

Targutai stops only because — bowing to tradition — Temudgin isn't quite tall enough to be killed. Within a year, however, that shouldn't be a problem.

Young Odsuren delivers a performance of astonishing depth throughout this first chapter: a powerful piece of acting that loses none of its vigor because of our reliance on subtitles. The boy's solemn insistence on bonding with young Börte may seem cute, but it's also quite serious; similarly, his chilling, implaccable expression, even as his enemy's knife is at his throat, brings charged significance to the aphorism that serves as this film's metaphor: "Do not scorn a weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger."

During the subsequent years, Temudgin escapes, is captured, escapes again, is captured again, rejoins Börte — now as young adults — and is separated from her several times. One wonders how the poor guy ever will find the time to become a conquerer, since he's far too preoccupied with staying alive and evading his enemies.

But that's the point, of course: Temudgin is molded and hardened by these events, his resolve becoming deeper with each setback. Played now by Tadanobu Asano, Temudgin has the steely gaze and unflinching resolve of one who'll clearly remember every slight, and every act of generosity ... and fully expects to live long enough to repay each in kind.

Asano has that magical charisma and strength of personality that vibrate off the screen; he, too, is superbly cast and utterly credible as a future shaper of the known world.

He's matched, scene for scene, by Khulan Chuluun as the adult Börte. Although clearly aware of her lesser status among these men who make all the important decisions, Chuluun's Börte regards this as a challenge to be overcome. In the pantheon of lovers perfectly matched by destiny, Temudgin and Börte — already intelligent, strong and resourceful as individuals — become a force of nature when united.

Their quieter moments, snatched whenever possible, are impressively tender and poignant.

Honglei Sun is equally memorable as Jamukha, Temudgin's blood brother and — eventually, sadly — mortal foe. Sun chews into his role with gusto, playing the sort of lusty stalwart who (in American cinema) drinks too much, brawls too much and gets all the best one-liners. Even when filtered through subtitles, Sun's Jamukha does, indeed, get all the best lines; his quirky, spontaneous nature also serves as a clever counterpoint to Temudgin's stoic resoluteness.

Cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergey Trofimov make the most of the rugged deserts and hillsides — filming took place in remote swaths of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan — that serve as this story's backdrop. The settings feel authentically ancient, the unspoiled land and gorgeous vistas making their own quiet statements, as if awaiting the thunderous charge of horses, when warring (and ever-larger) clans do battle.

The action is appropriately bloodthirsty, with razor-sharp swords and knives slicing men and spraying gouts of blood onto the camera lens. But the violence is not exploitative; we don't suffer through the cheesy decapitations or hacked-off limbs that have become de rigueur (and quite tiresome) in recent period epics.

Instead, Bodrov stages these scenes in a manner that suggests the grinding, exhausting and relentlessly hard work of battle: It's a job like any other, albeit a particularly lethal one.

Aside from the occasional deus ex machina moments already mentioned, my only other complaint concerns Bodrov's tone. Despite the captivating performances and frequent action sequences, this film is too contemplative. Bodrov remains detached, as if unwilling to more actively engage our involvement; his behavior as filmmaker is too much Temudgin, and not enough Jamukha.

You also might be mildly annoyed to discover that this film is, at best, the first half (third?) of a greater epic yet to come. Mongol concludes as Temudgin has united all his people, and stands poised to embark on the path that will, in time, allow him to control 20 percent of the entire planet. But that, apparently, is a story for another time.

Mongol was Kazakhstan's recent nominee for the foreign-language Oscar — having lost to Austria's The Counterfeiters — and it's easy to see why: This is the sort of lavish, old-style, "cast of thousands" filmmaking that can't help impressing us in an age of computer-enhanced "cheating."

Bodrov's approach may be oddly aloof at times, but by God he knows how to make movies.

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