Film Review: Mongol
Director: Sergei Bodrov (2007)
Having spent nigh over a decade locked in the British education system’s history classes, I have in my arsenal an abundance of facts regarding; Nazi Germany, the events behind the problems in Ireland, The American West, turnip farming techniques during the nineteenth century, the discovery and cultivation of penicillin and the realpolitik of Bismarck. Unfortunately, while this knowledge has proved beneficial in a few pub quizzes/successful attempts at Cluedo on a pub ItBox, it has utterly failed to shed any light on names like Genghis Kahn, Alexander the Great or Joan of Arc. I had to play Age of Empires 2 in order to gain any of that, and if I’m honest, the Genghis Kahn campaign was far too complicated for me to get any further than the first couple of levels.
So I come to Mongol, a film about Genghis Kahn (Temujin was his birth name apparently) that I have no doubt has taught me even less about the historical figure and more about what makes an entertaining ‘semi historical’ (thank Wikipedia for that abortion of a genre title) film. Starring a very worthy Tadanobu Asano as a less brutal and more civilised Ichi The Killer, and told in a mixture of Mongolian and Chinese Mandarin, it tells the story of Temujin’s childhood and journey to Kahn, mostly through the medium of big fuck-off horse riding battles.
Speaking to people better than myself who have actually seen Mongol, a repetitively occurring criticism is a bizarre sense of pacing, and this is true, Temujin’s father’s death lasts all of 20 seconds while him riding a horse away from bandits lasts five minutes. Future Genghis also seemed to have a habit of changing clans, which often occurs in the split seconds between scene changes, and it isn’t always immediately obvious which groupies he’s presently riding along with, nit-pickingly he also tends to place an incredible amount of trust in elderly Buddhist monks who have done absolutely nothing to suggest they are anything other than his enemies as well.
But that aside, and it’s really not much to put aside once you’ve watched Deja Vu, this is a decidedly watchable film, Temujin is a likeable character, both as a slightly hammy child and a top form Asano. Starting with his childhood, (no matter how briefly) means we get to watch a leader of men develop, and even have a believable, imperfect relationship that incorporates his wife being stolen and potentially raped. There’s also a hell of a lot of weakness shown, despite knowing the conclusion involves a traditional Mongolian jig on the Great Wall of China, there’s enough that goes wrong for Temujin for there to be a sense of dread, it actually gets pretty compelling. Shucks!
There’s a pretty decent support cast as well, Sun Honglei plays Temujin’s blood brother/rival, (Although how they became friends is only covered fleetingly and appears to fall into that infamous category, for shits and giggles) while Chuluuny Khulan is an authentic Mongolian actress that pitches somewhere between knowledgeable best friend and femme fatal. Khulan in particular deserves a lot of credit for her portrayal of the unfortunately named Börte. She doesn’t get a lot of lines to explain herself, and carries a child for most of the film, yet she’s incredibly interesting to watch, and well rounded, and no point do you get the sense that she’s simply there to be Mongolian eye Candy.
Maybe it’s pacing itself like a crack addict who’s gone two days without a fix, or maybe Bodrov learnt from his mistakes in Running Free, but what Mongol has done better than any film I’ve seen this year, what really made me sit up and take note, what made me make that annoying generic whistling noise that impresses imbeciles such as myself because they think it doesn’t sound inane, was the action scenes. There are small, one on one, and large scale battles, an abundant of horse gallops, wagons are upturned and subsequently climbed, archers fire from horse back and dudes with two swords ride through groups of ill equipped foot soldiers hacking left and right, and yet, all of it, is followable. The whole of this film is about Temujin uniting the Mongols, making for a number of Mongol vs Mongol battles, and yet, despite the fact both sides are dressed up to the point of being identical, these battles are set and edited in a way that never once left me wondering what side, say sword carrying Mongol A was fighting for, or who I wanted to win, which, if you truly hate yourself and want to prove it by watching Alexander, you’ll realise is a little difficult to achieve.
So, to conclude then, a pretty good film if you like battles, break-neck pacing, Mongolia, Tadanobu Asano or horse riding, a pretty bad film if you like factual history. It’s apparently the first in a planned trilogy, and while that intrigues me, I hope in the future instalments they’re maybe a little bit more honest about what a dick Genghis Kahn actually was, there’s a lot of women and child murdering that hasn’t really been covered yet, and while I of course, don’t approve of such things, I do think, maybe it maybe needs throwing in, in the interest of balance.
Written By Sam ‘I used to have a Mongolesque beard’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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