Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mongol - you khan steppe on in

Mongol is a love story, but no one will confuse Sergei Bodrov's Oscar nominated epic tale of Genghis Khan's early years with a chick flick. The blood flows freely in one stunt filled combat scene after another as Temudjin (the Mongol who will become Genghis Khan, played by Tadanobu Asano) is born the son of a khan, but loses all when his father is murdered as they return from selecting Temudjin's future bride. Temudjin, only nine years old, is thrown into a life of deprivation, at times slavery. In a survival of the fittest world, Temudjin is different. He values his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun), listening to her counsel and reuniting time after time when one nightmare after another forces their separation. He respects the Mongol god. He leads by example and shares the spoils of combat with his men. Eventually he builds an army large enough to challenge Jamukha (His blood brother and former ally) and unite the Mongol world. The film ends as Temudjin is poised to begin the world conquest that will engrave the name Genghis Khan in history.

The battle scenes include massive armies on horseback, spread across the steppes, who fight with swords and pikes. It's as if Temudjin is killing Orks in a fourth Lord of the Rings spectacular, but Director Bordov is very effectively using real stunt men and extras, not computer animation, and the only special effects are some extra gore. The director is Russian, the three leads are Chinese, Mongol and Japanese and I don't know what language the actors are speaking (the version I saw had English subtitles). Long stretches of dialog are very guttural and this combines with the location shots and soundtrack of Mongolian throat music to create a real feeling of the steppes from 800 years ago. Many scenes rely heavily on cuts between facial expressions with very little dialog (think Russian spaghetti Western). Chuluun thrives on this approach, playing Borte with a face that is somehow simultaneously stoic and expressive.

Mongol may have one battle too many, but I enjoyed it. So will most audiences, but stay home if you can't stand the gore.

In real life Genghis Khan's armies went on to conquer most of Eurasia with ferocity, horsemanship and innovative battle tactics, the original shock and awe. They held a massive geographical area with a small army by leaving few troops behind. A conquered city would be allowed to run itself, subject to some basic laws including payment of taxes to the great Khan. The mere prospect of a return visit from a Mongol army was enough to keep most cities in line.

No comments: