Mongol – Movie Review

When you imagine a movie about Genghis Khan (I know you don’t do that very much, but humour me) you probably imagine vast armies of Mongol warriors on horseback following an imposing, charismatic commander with power showing in his face and strength in his voice. On the contrary, this movie presents the story of a relatively soft-spoken man who was outcast and defeated many times. In fact, this version of his story begins with him shackled in a jail cell, being told that the monk sent to find his wife had died. Because you know that he’s going to become a legendary conqueror, you know that this pitiful scene is just a stopover, but it is an interesting sight nonetheless. That the title of this movie is “Mongol”, rather than “Genghis Khan”, reflected the fact that this was as much a story of the Mongol people as it was about their most famous leader. This story of the early life of Temudgin (Genghis Khan’s original name) was also an exploration of the power-politics of this culture of hunter-gatherers. Director Sergei Bodrov and the rest of the people involved have really done an amazing job at recreating this past society, one which the North American audience (and probably the world-wide movie audience) knows very little about. Whether the events are historically accurate seems secondary to a peek at the way of life for this nomadic cluster of horsemen who at one time grew to rule the largest contiguous land empire in history.

Temudgin was clearly depicted as the product, maybe the best, of his Mongol heritage. His father is shown dying because he honoured their customs when Temudgin was still young; and by the time he himself became leader of the unified Mongol nation, he held them all to laws based on their fundamental customs. Anthropologically it seems that a lot of attention has been paid to the cultural details. That is also evident in the physical details. Locations in the steppes are expansive and breathtaking, really allowing you to see these events within their physical context. Also, the costumes (including the props and buildings) seemed very authentic, from the pelts and furs worn in the snowy scenes down to the fancier embroidery and even jewelry (one of the enemy leaders had a metal “earring” that curled around like a blue-tooth headset. I can only assume that piece is something classically Mongolian). Even the musical score seemed culturally-appropriate to the setting. Thankfully there was no attempt to dub the movie (or, heaven forbid, do the dialogue in English). I’m sure most of the actors were non-professionals from the Mongolia/Kazakhstan areas. Some of the leads, including Temudgin himself (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano) were played by actors with other Asian backgrounds.

Having lost his father and being next in line for the khan-ship, Temudgin was the target for any warrior who fancied making himself the new Khan by killing the “prince”. To preserve his own life and the family bloodline, Temudgin was forced to go into hiding several times; only sometimes with a group of loyal followers. Even though this was only the earlier part of Temudgin’s life and career, it still seemed strange to see a great emperor shown as someone who was not really very successful at first. Asano did an excellent job playing the “strong-silent type” and even though there were no rousing St. Crispin’s Day type speeches with swelling orchestration, it was clear that he had charisma.

Another element played up by the film (that frankly make me suspicious of cultural inaccuracy in an attempt to serve a more modern thematic agenda) was how the women were depicted as being very strong (at least the important characters of Temudgin’s wife and his mother). Temudgin and his father risked (and eventually fought) wars because of their choice of brides. According to the movie, there seemed no question that both women were worth it. They were the no-nonsense type of wives who dominate and even command their husbands’ actions to a large degree. I’d be surprised if women who acted that way would have been so free and prevalent in an early, tribal society. Anyway, enough thematic analysis, back to the review …

It’s difficult to compare this kind of historical/period epic produced by a non-Hollywood film company to something like a Braveheart or Gladiator. Foreign films, especially, have a more patient pace, less quick to use set scenes to present the movie’s message in bite-sized pieces. In Mongol, a large part of the movie is spent with the young-boy Temudgin, well before spending time with Asano’s Temudgin. There is action (quite a lot, actually, and they don’t skimp on the arterial spray, either) and the fast moving battle scenes help balance the pace of the slower, more intimate scenes. Overall, this movie was very intriguing to a history fan like myself. Accurate or not, it gives me an enjoyable look inside another time, place and people that I would never experience directly in my own life. Performances were generally quite excellent and while the messages were pretty obvious, I didn’t feel beaten over the head by them. (4 out of 5)

What if I had made Mongol?

The execution of this movie was really good, except there was a flaw that reminded me that it wasn’t a studio picture. The sound design was generally good, but in the battle scenes the foley artists (the guys who make the sound effects by recording sounds made by other more mundane things) should have gone for a few different kinds of sounds for swords. Every time a blade slashed someone or stabbed someone, it sounded like tearing fabric. It didn’t matter if the victim had been run through by the point, or slashed through layers of fur, it still sounded like their shirt had been ripped or something. I kept getting distracted by that, so if I’d been in charge I would have asked for better sounds there. The other part of the sound was the dubbing. Sometimes the lips did not match the sound of the words, so it appeared almost as if the movie had been dubbed from one language to another. It definitely made the movie feel a bit cheap for me. I would have really tried to make the dubbing perfect. Finally, I would have done more to allow viewers to tell the Mongolian warriors apart. I would have asked the creative director to give me more distict features so that if someone was moving towards another someone, viewers could immediately tell if they were enemies or allies.


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