Sunday, 15 November 2009

Mongol (2007)

In any movie, poisoning a young prince’s father, robbing his possessions, enslaving and exiling him, and then stealing his wife, would be infelicitous acts, because he's bound to come back and kick your ass in the last act. When the prince in question is the future Genghis Khan, such actions appear positively unwise. Sergei Bodrov, who once made the fine Prisoner of the Mountains (1995), takes a stab here at melding that film’s flavourful, folk-tale mystique with the Braveheart-esque blockbuster epic and many visual and thematic flourishes plainly indebted to Zhang Yimou’s superior Hero.

Bodrov’s most at home communicating the intimate, rough-hewn yet still homey culture of the Mongols, drifting on the edge of the other civilisations Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) will eventually unite them to destroy, and his direction drinks in the natural expanses of the Steppes. The early sequences set the story, and emotional imperatives, in motion with fluidic intensity, performing the hitherto imaginable feat of making Temudjin an empathetic hero as he is endlessly outmatched, betrayed, and generally screwed over.

But the absorbing first act gives way to crummy CGI and a paper-thin script, offering recurring capture and escape as its only narrative strategy, whilst proving amazingly shallow in exploring Temudjin’s psychology and growing strategic genius. For a film that proposes to reveal Genghis Khan’s origins, it can find nothing more to do than half-heartedly quote a dozen old matinee plots, unwilling to obey its own melodramatic impulses in setting up baddies ripe to be rumbled and then ignoring them, and tragic brotherly quarrels that have no climax or complexity. How Temudjin finally stakes his claim to being a leader of great hordes of men is skipped over because, well, it’s too complicated for the filmmakers to contemplate handling. The recasting of Temudjin as a nice family guy who likes frolicking with kids in between forcibly remoulding his nation through violence and ruthlessness has a quality of strong-government propaganda not far from that of Hero, that film’s least attractive quality, without its attendant poeticism. And of course behind every great man is a great woman, here the comely Börte (Khulan Chuluun), who becomes both pliable pawn and single-minded player in the games of frontier machismo, and to whom Temudjin is drawn from their first meeting at nine years old. But Bodrov can’t work up any convincing force to suggest transcendent, irrational passion, and finally he retreats into badly employed pseudo-mythical flourishes, like a thunder storm that intervenes at just the right moment so that Temudjin can awe the Mongols with his lack of fear of lightning. Rather than offer a contemporary Alexander Nevsky, Bodrov finally gives us a pissweak remake of Conan the Barabarian.


Patrick said...

I more or less liked this one, mainly because it was a look at such a different world and in a different setting than we usually see in the movies. But for a movie that is about the rise of Genghis Khan, it has a rather jarring omission, that being the rise of Genghis Khan (as you pointed out). More specifically, he is leading a band of a couple of people, then with no warning at all he has raised an army of thousands. You would think that how he unified all of the various bands would be a critical element of the story. I'm pretty sure this was part one of a planned trilogy. I liked it enough to want to watch part 2 anyway.

Roderick Heath said...

Yes, it's almost like Bodrov and co. though maybe audiences would find it boring or something, where the thrill in this sort of tale is in watching the building movement. Still, I agree, the setting and period, the "different world", were the most interesting aspect of this, especially considering in most histories the Mongols are written off as vicious savages. As for part two, I'll see how I feel when it comes out.