Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Mongol


Although Mongol, as the first entry in an epic trilogy, has already been labeled the Mongolian Lord of the Rings, a better description would be Genghis Begins or Khansino Royale (sorry). It's the origin story of Genghis Khan, and as such follows the conqueror, back when he was just called Temudgen, as he seeks power in Mongolia years before his famous conquests. Although the film is far from perfect, it is an impressive example of filmmaking on an epic scale.

Like many epics, the true star of this film is not the title character but the gorgeous landscape and its exquisite rendering in extreme-long shots. Russian director Sergei Bodrov filmed in Kazakhstan and China's Inner Mongolia, and we're treated to beautiful vistas in a vast array of locations: mountains, hills, deserts, and rolling grasslands.

The film's plot more or less follows a love triangle, established in the first half-hour of film, while our principals are children. Temudgen, against his father's wishes, chooses Borte, a girl from a weak tribe, to be his wife. After his father's untimely death, Temudgen - as a threat to the new clan Khan - must flee, and meets and befriends a blood-brother, Jemukha, while on the run. As an adult, Temudgen is pulled in different directions by his brother, who wants him as a second-in-command, and his wife, who dreams of greater things.

Although the opening portion of the film drags, the movie gets going roughly a third of the way through, when we meet our adult actors and both blood and humor start flowing (since we're dealing with Mongols, they frequently flow simultaneously). Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano imbues the tile role with appropriate gravitas, and Khulan Chuulun brings a grave intelligence to role of Borte, who is both Temudgen's long-suffering wife and canny adviser. But Chinese actor Honglei Sun steals the show as Jemukha; he plays the role with a mix of warrior pride, bloodthirstiness, and wicked humor that I found captivating.

Mongol certainly qualifies as classic epic filmmaking, of the kind once practiced by David Lean and driven lately by Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson. Although the film's pace and plot can be spotty, the story is deep and resonant, and the action sequences recall Gladiator with their depiction of gore in jumpy, hand-held camera work. But Mongol is ultimately more than an epic: it is mythic filmmaking. Temudgen is the ur-Mongol, he is the law-giver and order-bringer - he both upholds the old ways and reshapes them to suit his needs. When the time finally comes to strike down his enemies, the heavens themselves open up and offer aid. In short, Genghis Khan is the Mongolian Paul Maud'Dib.

My only reservation is, after I liked and enjoyed the first volume of the Russian Lord of the Rings, Night Watch, the second volume was both lackluster and, unfortunately, not released in theaters in my area. The third volume still hasn't come out yet, as the Russian Peter Jackson was busy making this weekend's Wanted. I can only hope that, in terms of reception and distribution, the Mongolian Lord of the Rings fares better.

Update: The third "Watch" movie, Twilight Watch, might get canceled. Epic trilogy lovers, beware; let's hope Mongol 2 and 3 are immune:

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