Director: Sergei Bodrov (Running Free, Nomad)
Writers: Sergei Bodrov, Arif Aliyev
Producers: Sergei Bodrov, Anton Melnik, Sergei Selyanov
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Sun Honglei, Odnyam Odsuren, Pai Ying (II)
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 126 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
      One of the five nominees for best picture in the foreign language category at last year's Oscar ceremony, Mongol was one of the films on my most anticipated list that I knew would be a long while before ever seeing (as is the case with almost all of the foreign language nominees). Trying to fuse Asian history into the Braveheart genre (yes, I just proclaimed Braveheart a genre), it succeeds fairly well at accomplishing what it wants to, but it's not without some problems and I can praise the Academy for at least getting something right this past year by not awarding Mongol with the coveted prize. Although it is quite a fine film in its own right.

      Marketed as the rise of Genghis Khan, Mongol really doesn't spend much time with the actual rise to power of Khan or any time with his subsequent conquests that he is famous for. Instead, we focus most of our time with Khan as a young boy and then later in his early life; of which he spent most of as a captive. In fact, not until the final 10 seconds of the movie is he even referred to as Genghis. Until that point, his name was Temudjin. Temudjin was a man of strong spirit and courage. As a young boy he chooses his wife from a neighboring clan. Unable to rejoin with her for several years, the film spends most of its time with one of them trying to rescue the other. Making friends and enemies along the way, Temudjin basically sets up his destiny piece by piece as he befriends and betrays various members of multiple clans.

      I admit to not knowing much (if anything) about Genhis Khan. Pretty much all I know of him I learned from Bill and Ted, so the history somewhat intrigued me, but also got a bit tiresome as the story struggled to continue. Khan isn't portrayed here as a man of brutal dictatorship, instead he seems to be a fairly kind and loving man with his people's best interest at heart. The word that best describes the character of Khan in this film is simply, "jerk." He gets what he wants from friends and loved ones and then leaves them or betrays them. It's never enough to evoke real emotion from the audience, but it's enough to keep the character interesting and what thinking about what his internal motivations might be - perplexing as they are. To be sure, the motivations for his actions never really seem very clear to be honest.

      Most noticeable about Mongol is its sheer beauty. Rarely (if ever) have I seen a film that presents the diversity of a region's terrain in such gorgeous wonder. From the searing heat of deserts, to the riversides of the gorgeous steppe to the Mongolian plains; all with beautifully detailed mountain scenery as a backdrop. Literally every shot in this film is a wonder to behold. Not surprising, the same Russian cinematographer from the gorgeous Night Watch series was hired for this picture as well. It shows.

      Besides the cinematography is the costuming and set design. While it seems like an easy task to set up a few tee-pees out in the middle of a field, I can assure readers that the authenticity displayed here was no easy challenge to overcome. Yet the props department seems to have done just that and everything has a really natural feel to it; all the way down to the undergarments of the characters. It's a necessary task to keep these things natural and believable so that the story line and performances can shine through without distraction. I pronounce success in this area of the film.

      Anyone who has been a part of the audience for some of the films from The Toronto After Dark Film Festival over the past two years or have even loosely followed Asian film recently will surely recognize the lead in this film, Tadanobu Asano. Starring in such films as Ichi the Killer, Tokyo Zombie, Funky Forest and The Taste of Tea, he's an easily recognizable man with much charisma and charm. The lending of his talent to this film only helps solidify an already terrific career. With magnetic performances pretty much all around, including an acting debut from Khulan Chuluun as Khan's faithful and strong wife and also more especially the genius of Honglei Sun as Genghis' most beloved friend and worst enemy, Mongol is filled to the brim with exceptional talent.

      Those looking for epic battle sequences and intense waging of war will likely be let down here. The American marketing for the movie is, per usual, completely misleading. While there are a couple of battles in the film, only about ten to fifteen minutes of the 126 minutes of running time are spent with such brutality. Most of the movie is a character study on Temudjin and how he interacts with others and the various encounters and experiences to shape him into the man he will one day become.

      Because the picture is more of a character study and biopic of a man who lived a full life before even reaching 40 years of age in an extremely diverse and expansice landscape, it has to cover a lot of ground in only two hours. This is a difficult task to accomplish, though for the most part Mongol manages its time wisely. Still, the picture probably would've worked better as an extended mini-series on HBO or the like. There are a lot of rough jumps in time and some things feel a bit like a herky jerky time warp, while other clips feel like they're lingering a bit too long on a given piece of subject matter. Again, this was a difficult mandate and the film makers did a fairly decent job of getting it right but some lengths of time seemed to whiz by while others seemed to take forever. At times it was difficult to find the bearings of when and where we were; but it doesn't take long to get back on track.

      A quick mention must be made of the unique and perfectly fitting score. Much of the movie is coated with a rhythmic cascade of tribal-like drums and a chanting voiceover that is ominous; bordering on evil. It's very effective at eliciting a sense of strength, power and an overall feeling of tension, despair and things to come.

      So while not without a couple of hitches, Mongol really is quite the epic. With great performances and outdoor cinematography unmatched by anything I've seen in years, it's worth the price of admission just to look at and revel in. Top that with an interesting and supposedly fairly accurate history lesson and you have the ingredients for an Oscar worthy film. Though it was nominated (and rightfully so), I think its eventual loss to another movie was ultimately the right call by the academy voters in the foreign category. But make no mistake, Mongol is a terrific film in its own right and if nothing else has prompted me to learn more about a man I had little to no knowledge of.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

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