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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.