MONGOL

Directed by Sergei Bodrov

Picturehouse

June 2008

Mongol

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


If you only know about Genghis Khan through half remembered stories of a barbarian chieftain, conflating him with Attila the Hun, Conan the Cimmerian, and other barbarian chieftains throughout history (and fiction), you might be excused for thinking that Sergei Bodrov's film Mongol, which is a look at his rise from a young boy named Temüĵin to a warlord called Genghis Khan takes liberties with his story in an attempt to make a vicious killer out to be a more sympathetic human being.  However, Mongol stays quite close to its source, the thirteenth century The Secret History of the Mongols, compiled by an unknown Uighur monk in the decades following Genghis Khan's death.

In the film, as in the history, Temüĵin is portrayed as a man driven by two motivations.  The first, and stronger one, is the need for vengeance against those who have wronged him, whether a real or imagined slight.  He has plenty of cause to seek vengeance, for his father's murder, for his own sale into slavery, for the treatment of his first wife, Börte, and more.  His need for vengeance isn't even necessarily an egotistical thing.  It is simply what must be done.  The second motivation is born from the first.  He seeks his own security, and safety for his family and those who look to him for safety.  He is a khan, a warlord, and owes as much a debt to those who follow him as they owe to him.

Tadanobu Asano does an excellent job in his portrayal of Temüĵin in a sympathetic manner.  His face, which seems almost expressionless at first, actually if very good at showing a character who can be contemplative, serene, or murderous as the need arises.  His interactions with Honglei Sun, who portrays Temüĵin's anda, or blood brother, Jamuγa are excellent, although Sun, with his more active portrayal manages to steal most of the scenes the two men have together.  Eventually Jamuγa and Temüĵin have a falling out and Jamuγa allies himself with Temüĵin's sworn enemy, Tarγutai (Amadu Mamadakov).  Set up as a primary villain in the first half of the film, Tarγutai winds up playing a second banana to Jamuγa in the second half.

The other strong character in the film is Temüĵin's wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun).  From the moment the two meet as youngsters (portrayed by Odnyam Odsuren and  Bayertsetseg Erdenebat, who give fine portrayals of there own which mirror the adults), the viewer knows that no matter how powerful Temüĵin becomes, Börte will always be able to exert her will over him. Bodrov and Chuluun demonstrate that Börte's power is not based on sexual attraction, for they show her as a strong figure in every situation in which she finds herself.  In the end, and based in large part on the scene in which she rescues Temüĵin from prison, she demonstrates that she and Temüĵin are soul mates.

The film does fail in one major area, but it is a failure it shares with The Secret History of the Mongols. In both works, Temüĵin is shown, alternately as being completely alone and being surrounded by warriors who are loyal to him.  In the film this is handled with title cards which indicate that several years have passed, allowing Temüĵin the time to unite some of the Mongol tribes under him and forge alliances, but the fact that Bodrov chose not to show those events is telling and makes the viewer wonder how a Temüĵin who  was a slave separated from all he held dear could lead an army and again be friendless and in prison. Temüĵin is shown as being driven, but more details would have helped make his story more understandable.

Mongol is slated to be the first film of a trilogy that follows the life of Genghis Khan, and it covers the period from about 1171, when he was nine years old, until 1206, when he had managed to unite most of the tribes of Mongolia and be proclaimed Genghis Khan. The second film, provisionally titled The Great Khan, is currently in pre-production and is scheduled to be released in 2010 and presumably will examine Genghis Khan's imposition of his law on the disparate tribes and his expansion of his realm, again as he tries to wreak vengeance on those who have acted traitorously towards him or his family.


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