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LAist at the movies - Mongol

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Usually, the historical portrait of a famous warrior is either base hagiography or black legend, designed to vilify or venerate without really minding too much about what actually happened, as long as the subjects know that god/the gods/Lenin/George Washington specifically approves of and fully endorses the regime, or condemns it as the hated enemy.

Not so with Genghis Kahn, a brutal conqueror who really was just about as incredible as you’ve heard. We're talking about someone who deliberately spread a story about the time he murdered his own brother in a dispute over the spoils of a hunt. Clearly, he wanted you to both worship and flee him, so it follows, at least theoretically, that it should be nigh-near-fufracking-impossible to make a bad movie based on his life – all that’s required is to add dialogue to deadpan descriptions of any one of the thousands of kick ass battles, throw in some scenes of Chinese diplomats flipping the hell out, add some short but poignant discussions, point a camera and collect a check. But never count out the magic of Hollywood, which has given us nothing but bad after bad after bad. The most notorious is the racist caricature portrayed by John Wayne in The Conqueror, but even if nothing could possibly fail quite that much again, there still hasn’t been a single serious attempt to get the story right.

Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov has set out to amend this sorry state of affairs with Mongol, the first of a proposed trilogy about the Emperor’s life. Starring Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano as the titular Mongolian, with Khulan Chuluun as his loyal wife Borte and Sun Honglei (delivering an amazingly Landolike performance) as erstewhile best friend Jamuka, it depicts Genghis Kahn’s early career, the period in which he famously transformed himself from a low level thug for hire to the unifier and lawgiver of the Mongol nation, and future leader of the world’s most powerful empire. It’s a period marked by constant violence, civil war, and the everpresent threat that whatever you have might be stolen from you at a moment’s notice.

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All in all exciting stuff, or, at least, it should be. It’s beautifully shot and painstakingly faithful-to-the-story, well acted, and has an appropriate amount of carnage, but the story suffers from a lack of focus and a heavy reliance on Biopic conventions, and the end result is mixed. Even so, while it doesn’t completely succeed, it isn't an awe inspiring embarrassment on par with The Conqueror. That, at the very least, is saying quite a lot.

One of the more difficult things about historical epics is the tendency to depict a culture solely from the point of view of the observer. For example, depictions of the Roman Empire typically feature Christians, or at least, outsiders as the heroes, and even if it takes place during the republican or pagan period, Roman Culture is treated as something foreign and undesirable. Ultimately, we’re encouraged to view them as prelude to our own time instead a part of their own.

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The problem is that depicting a culture as accurately as possible can get really, really boring for people who don't tent their pants at the thought of reading another history book. This is why movies about ancient Greece tend to be Sandal clad retellings of the American Revolution or WWII. It's a delicate balance - get too historical and you’re left without a clear story – make it too relevant to the present, and you end up diluting whatever it is that made the subject uniquely a part of his or her time. Also, you end up with Gladiator*.

Instead of finding the middle ground between the two, Bodrov decided instead to simply split the difference. The result is a pretty but confusing (to anyone unfamiliar with the intricasies of Asian history) mess. Fascinating, but dull. Like David Foster Wallace**.

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For the first half of the film, the minutia of Mongol life is depicted unsentimentally. Cultural norms we might find bizarre are presented so clinically, so matter-of-factly, that it isn't clear until well into the film that they weren't specific to Genghis Kahn's upbringing. This isn't necessarily a problem, being as it is infinitely preferable to stupid, expository dialogue of the sort you normally get in such films. Americans typically don't walk around explaining cars and TV to each other, and it hurts to know that future movies about our culture will inevitably contain such dreck. But it might have been nice to make it clear that these traditions - the theft of someone’s spouse as a means of enlarging your own family, casual acceptance and adoption of children fathered by another man, childhood marriage arrangements, the real threat that any interaction, no matter how mundane, might flare up into a war over nothing - were longstanding, everyday stuff.

Bodrov did make the interesting decision to depict the Mongol religion - the vast Mongolian Sky that seemed to the Mongols to be the biggest thing in the world and thus, was worshipped as a god - exactly as the Mongols saw it; as a real and extremely powerful force in their lives. Genghis Kahn, still known to friends, family, and peasants running as far the hell away as possible as Temüjin or “ironworker, is shown to have a particularly close relationship to the Sky God. His prayers receive cryptic but effective responses, the God seems to intervene personally in his life, generally just as all seems lost, and he has superior insight, clearly resulting from his connection to the God, that contributes to his later fame and power.

Having endured countless viewings of 1950’s movies set during the AD portion of the Roman Empire, I’m not exactly unfamiliar with films that treat superstitions as factual, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it either. While I’m happy to see a non-western religion portrayed with the same respect and nonchalance as is usually reserved only for Christians or the occasional token representative of a smaller approved faith, I admit I was annoyed to repeatedly see the Sky god, manifested in the form of a magical wolf, appearing to Temüjin and assisting him. The story is already interesting enough as it is – asking the audience to accept divine intervention requires suspension of disbelief normally reserved for getting through Dances with Wolves without vomiting.

Still, at least it’s a ballsy decision. I seriously doubt that Sergei Bodrov worships the Mongolian Sky God. He could have easily chosen to depict their beliefs as silly and pointless, or even taken it further and depicted Genghis Kahn (inaccurately) as an atheist, or simply waiting for the “better,” religion to come along. Instead, he opted to risk alienating his audience; I support it, even if I was among the alienated.

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He also made what can only be described as the great pro-Mongolian Tourism film ever. The Steppe and the big sky dominate the film more than any single character and you're left with a real sense of why the Mongolians might choose the sky as their god. They could just as easily have chosen the horizon, the mountains, or the rolling hills and winding rivers and it would have amounted to the same thing. They’re all astonishing, and by the end even I was ready to offer up a sacrifice or two.

Unfortunately, despite many remarkable aspects, The Mongol ultimately falls into typical biopic formula:

1) Begin in media res during a pivotally low moment in the subject’s life, and then flashback to the origin story. Here, we find Genghis in a Tartar jail, reflecting on his life.
2) The loss of a crucial role model. His father, a low level tribal chieftain poisoned by unscrupulous enemies. The assassination was made possible thanks to dad’s strict observance of Mongolian customs, even when he knows he’s being set up. 3 guesses if Genghis learns anything from that.
3) A subsequent life of constant poverty and intermittent slavery. After all, what’s a great leader without the common touch that can only come from having been plunged to the very depths.
4) A love story. This isn’t exactly out of line. Genghis remained married to Borte for her entire life. Despite his numerous other wives and mistresses, she remained empress, and their kids were his only heirs. Still, come on. This isn’t Johnny Cash and June Carter.
5) Frequent and extremely narrow escapes from superior enemies. Need I say more?
6) A rivalry with a crucial ally. In this case, his childhood friend and blood brother Jamuka, which culminated in a massive civil war.

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That these events actually happened isn’t the point. What matters is how they’re told and when you’re watching a film about the life of history’s greatest conqueror, is Ray or Walk The Line really the format you want to imitate?

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Mongol also suffers from an infuriating reliance on voice over narration to fill in the blanks. Years, and in one case an entire decade, elapse with nothing more than a disembodied voice assuring us that we just missed a lot of cool stuff but, you know, we'll find out some other time. There’s even a moment where the film skips directly from Genghis escaping prison to his riding at the head of a massive army, having become the second most powerful person in Mongolia, and the whole thing is blithely summed up with “after some time, I raised another army. Now it was time to face my rival…”, or words to that effect.

Furthermore, it's painfully vague about the order of events. Concepts like cause and effect are given short shrift and events seem to happen more or less because they are supposed to. The distracting VO somewhat attempts to resolve the problem, but even so, events are never clearly put into context and the effect is that you never really worry that Genghis Kahn might not survive. By the climactic final battle between the Kahn and his rival, you don’t really care because you already know how it’s going to turn out anyway. Combined with the structural issues, the lack of dramatic tension gives the film a sleepy, lackadaisical pace that isn’t really confusing as much as it’s kind of forgettable.

Near the end of his life, when asked what makes him happy, the Kahn allegedly said:

“The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”

Not exactly the statement of a relaxed, laid back personality. It’s too bad that Bodrov thought otherwise. Still, there’s much to recommend it, and it must be noted that this is, essentially, an origin story. Like the first Spider Man, the first X-men, the first Superman, and countless other super hero films, the story always gets bogged down getting the protagonist from hero to zero with an appropriate amount of carnage and special effects. Perhaps Mongol suffered from the same problem. One can only assume that the second and Third films will feature a much more fleshed out Emperor, able to rape and pillage and pour molten silver into the ears of his enemies without having to explain how he got his superpowers. It ought to be incredible.

Just as long as they don’t fire Bodrov and replace him with Brett Ratner.

The Mongol opens today in select theaters.

*god damn that movie.
** yeah, I said it. Infinite Jest infinitely sucks.