Sergei Bodrov's Mongol is a summer movie made from anti-matter. Not only does this Genghis Khan biopic avoid showing too many of the lavishly gory historical battles that typify movies like 300, it approaches its legendary subject from an unglamorous, dutiful angle. Rather than focusing on the 13th-century ruler's reign over the largest contiguous empire in world history, Bodrov's film charts the long, hard road that brought Khan to the head of the Mongol hordes in the late 1100s. It's not your average ancient-times bloodletting party, but it earns respect on its own severe terms.
The film's strangeness and dislocation begins with the fact that no one in the film actually says the words "Genghis Khan." The presence of Khan, the fearsome and revered warrior, leader, and statesman (and ancestor to about 16 million males currently walking the Earth) is only implied in the film's final shots. Instead, the film recounts the life of Khan's "alter ego" Temudgin, the resilient wandering son of a former Khan who was poisoned at a watering hole. As played by Odynam Odsuren (as an 8-year old) and Tadanobu Asano (as an adult), Temudgin's life is nasty and brutish but far from short; his growth is measured by the size of the cangues that continually ensnare him. What keeps Temudgin moving stubbornly forward is his desire to reunite with his wife Börte (Khulan Chuluun, in a fine debut) and wipe out those who have wronged him.
The fade-outs that punctuate key moments in Temudgin's life story reflect its status as cultural myth. It's never explained how Temudgin survives a plunge into an icy lake, the arrow that pierces his chest, or the multiple run-ins with his enemies. He's treated like both a savior and a necessary force of order, especially when he intones, "Mongols need laws. I will make them obey, even if I have to kill half of them."
That proclamation is no laughing matter. Only Sun Hong-lei, who plays Temudgin's adoptive half-brother and eventual nemesis Jamukha, is allowed to smile at it. Jamukha doesn't possess Temudgin's focus or drive, so he bends his neck and back, growls like a dog who's taken Tuvan throat-singing lessons, and watches as his half-brother's historical moment arrives. Jemukha seems to know that he will be a footnote in history at best, so he takes a rueful joy in his rival's stamina and cunning.
Mongol's vast, harsh landscapes threaten to overshadow the human drama. Through the depiction of coniferous forests and rolling, snow-covered fields, cinematographers Sergei Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers reveal some of the stark, parched beauty of the Mongolian countryside. However, no amount of natural light or magic-hour footage ever softens these unforgiving landscapes. The environmental conditions are inherently alienating; the isolation of each village and each family is so total that Temudgin's proposal to unite these nomadic tribes feels like the wildest fantasy.
And fantasy is what everyone's seeking these days, isn't it? If the main objective of summer moviegoing is to provide escapism, then Mongol is some kind of success; it's like a medieval version of There Will Be Blood without all the self-justifying cant. How about that?
Opening Friday, June 27th