It’s well known that Genghis Khan was a Mongolian Don Juan who left many Genghis spawn in his wake. Pop-culture wisdom holds that there’s a bit o’ Genghis in us all.
In fact, a study done by geneticists has linked upward of 8 percent of Y-chromosome lineage in Asia (and, thus, 0.5 percent worldwide) to Genghis’ prolific copulation. (Thus, in the collective unconscious, Genghis is as closely linked to Wilt Chamberlain as he is to, say, Napoleon.) And of course, Genghis Khan’s name (it’s actually more of a title that translates to “Great Leader”—his real name is Temudjin), at least in the West, is also associated with “ruthless warlord.”
How could he not have been one? Genghis was born into a small nomadic tribe; at the time of his death, in 1227, he commanded nearly 130,000 troops and a swath of earth that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan.
Mongol, the new beautifully staged epic by Russian auteur Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), aims to showcase the softer, gentler, one-woman-man side of Genghis. To be sure it’s an idealized portrait, but to call Mongol revisionist is incorrect. The historical records are sparse and their interpretations contested—which is to say that there really is no standardized account to revise. The major events in Mongol are historically based. Moreover, Mongol is the first in a purported trilogy. Certainly there will be time in these later contributions to present the horrors of his empire and the splendors of his libido.
But Mongol focuses on the genesis of the feared leader’s rise to power—from Temudjin’s (Tadanobu Asano) adolescence, when his father was assassinated and he was exiled from his small clan, to the war he waged to rescue his kidnapped wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun), to the battle he fought against his blood brother (Honglei Sun) and, finally, to his eventual consolidation of power over all of the Mongolian steppes. (I’ll spoil it no further: The best thing about being an ignorant American is that even a film that covers the life of one of the most influential people in history can still be one long surprise.)
Mongol should appeal equally to lovers of artsy ethnogrophy and to fans of bloody tales of ascension (such as Braveheart). Beautifully shot on location in Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, Mongol features splendid, charismatic performances by its leads, Asano, Chuluun and Sun, and is vividly imagined, with high production values and, thankfully, no intrusive familiar faces or Hollywood clichés. Furthermore, as trips to distant relatives’ homes go, it’s certainly the most fun you’re likely to have this year—Thanksgiving included.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov and written by Arif Aliyev and Sergei Bodrov
With Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun and Odnyam Odsuren
The Screen, 126 min., R