Genghis Khan has a seriously hard-knock life as a kid and young man (including several stints in captivity, a near constant state of war and a tendency to keep losing his wife) in Mongol, this year’s Academy Award nominee foreign language film and a fascinating and surprisingly violent biopic.
I say surprising because amongst all the historical costumes and subtitles (yes, this movie is in Mongolian with subtitles) there will be great geysers of blood following some poor Mongol getting run through with a sword. On the other hand, Genghis Khan conquered most of Asia and he didn’t do it with oratory and cookies so really the violence shouldn’t be all that shocking.
Little Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) is just the nine-year-old son of a Khan (his clan’s leader) when he picks a wife and loses his father to a poisoning, all on the same road trip. He returns home to find that one of his father’s lieutenants is robbing his family’s home and has pronounced a plan to kill Temudjin just as soon as he’s grown up enough to not be a child anymore. Temudjin is then forced to flee into the wilderness, where he befriends Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar), with whom he becomes blood brothers. Eventually Temudjin is captured and then he escapes and then there’s maybe more capture and he’s forced to run even farther and eventually he shows up, some many years late, in search of Borte (Khulan Chuluun), the girl-turned-woman he’d agreed to marry as a child.
For every moment of happiness, however, Temudjin pays with years of struggle — for example an angry tribe kidnaps Borte and the now grown and Khan Jamukha (Honglei Sun) has to join Temudjin in battle to get her back. (Which he does, reluctantly, and with unexpectedly dire consequences.) Later, Temudjin is taken captive again and we see him surviving in a cage by coaxing in pigeons and then wringing their necks. Smiles and tender moments are rare in this sea of despair, blood and death. It all seems operatically harsh until you think that, for the late 1100s, it’s probably not an unusual amount of death. The only unusual thing here is all the times Temudjin didn’t die.
All this struggle, battle and harshness set against the beautiful central Asian landscape is just fascinating. Two hours of subtitles wouldn’t seem like the ideal situation but you don’t notice the time (and thanks to the action-heavy story, don’t feel taxed by the subtitles). Without the words at the bottom of the screen, you’d still have a movie that you couldn’t turn away from — the plains look like the American West and the riders galloping across them (a posse versus one runaway; two warring gangs) bring to mind old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians-style films. The acting is strong and even without understanding the words as they’re spoken by the actors you can still get some of the nuance of their performances (no easy feat when it’s being run through a translation).
And, for all his survival instincts, Temudjin seems like a fuzzy bunny compared to Borte, who gets to take part in the movie’s romantic love story while still being a steely realist and occasionally getting to mix it up in battle herself. It’s not often that a historical drama like this gives you such a fun, well-developed female character who still seems period-appropriate and not at all campy.
Mongol is an old-school epic, full of sweep and dramatic crescendo. And though you might not find it at the box office, this tale of Mongolian history also happens to be one of the better action movies of the summer. B
Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare. Directed by Sergei Bodrov and written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, Mongol is two hours and four minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Picturehouse. It is currently playing at Wilton Town Hall Theatre and is on the upcoming schedule at Red River Theatres.