Directed By: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun, Deng Ba Te Er, Odnyam Odsuren, Bayertsetseg Erdenebat
"Mongol" follows the early life of Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), from the time he was ten years old until he unites the Mongol tribes and becomes the conqueror known as Genghis Khan. As we meet the young Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren), he is traveling with his father, the "Khan" of a small Mongol tribe to choose his future bride. He surprises his father by choosing the strong-willed Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat) halfway through the journey. During their return, Temudjin's father is poisoned by a treacherous rival tribe. Rather than accept a boy as leader, the duplicitous Daritai (Deng Ba Te Er ) assumes the title of Khan, exiles the young Temudjin, and announces his plan to kill him when he is of age. This begins an odyssey in which the Young Temudjin wanders alone, is repeatedly captured and escapes, and befriends a young boy named Jamuhka who becomes his blood brother. As an adult, Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) returns to claim his bride, Börte (Khulan Chuluun), but must enlist the aid of Jamuhka (Honglei Sun), now a powerful warlord, to rescue her when she is kidnapped. This rescue mission, and Temudjin's rise as a popular and charismatic leader, begins a chain of events that eventually pits blood brother against blood brother culminating in more captures, escapes, and massive battles.
Sergei Bodrov's Mongol has epic ambitions, although it wisely avoids the pitfalls of trying to encompass the entirety of its world conqueror's life in a single film a la Oliver Stone's Alexander. It takes a surprisingly even-keeled view of its subject matter, especially considering that it is coming from a Russian director who presumably never received a rosy view of Genghis Khan and the Mongols when studying his own country's history in school. That being said, it still feels dramatically sketchy at times, with a repetitive emphasis on dramatic captures and escapes with more than a few lapses in information explaining how its protagonist manages to survive. By way of illustration, there is a sequence where we see young Temudjin fall through ice deep into the water underneath. The film then cuts to a future imprisoned Temudjin presumably reflecting on his past, and the next time we see him, Young Temudjin is lying in the snow looking weary when he is found by young Jahmulka. Similarly, in another situation, young Temudjin runs away from captors with a large stock securing his arms and head, but we are never shown how he manages to free himself from it. At times, it is suggested that Temudjin is benefitting from some form of divine intervention.
Despite the screenplay's refusal to connect all of the narrative dots, the film still succeeds in no small part thanks to a talented international cast and some awe-inspiring location cinematography.
Of the cast, Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays the lead role of the adult Temudjin with tremendous restraint. He spends much of the movie expressing dialog that is little more than functional and is an extremely passive protagonist, especially when you consider he is playing someone who will ultimately conquer the largest empire in the history of the planet. The screenplay seems to view pragmatism as one of the defining characteristics that would allow him to become the "Khan of Khans". It is to Asano's credit that when he eventually becomes more of an active leader near the film's end, the philosophies he expresses verbally seem completely consistent with the reactions to experiences we have previously seen play across Temudjin's face and body language. Veteran Chinese star Honglei Sun is equally impressive as Temudjin's blood brother who becomes his rival and enemy in an arc that is the stuff of classic drama. One of director Bodrov's more impressive achievements with the film was in finding a group of juvenile actors to play the young Temudjin, Börte, and Jahmulka who really look and behave like they will become their adult counterparts. Probably the biggest revelation in the cast is first time screen actress Khulan Chuluun as Börte, who accomplishes the difficult task of convincing us that she is someone who the future Genghis Khan will not only take as his wife, but to whom he will occasionally defer.
The film has amazing location photography from Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. Bodrov and his cinematographers maximize their use of these relatively unfamiliar (to me, anyway) landscapes for one visually breathtaking shot after another. Even during the film's blood-spurting battle set-pieces, one cannot help but appreciate the beauty of the surrounding landcsapes. While the film clearly uses some digital effects, they are blended effectively with more traditionally old-fashioned shots of thousands of extras against the aforementioned impressive backgrounds during battle scenes. Just as effective in a completely different way are numerous shots of one or two characters dwarfed by their vast surroundings. The latter shots emphasize the character-defining point made late in the film about how Temudjin psychologically survives his exile by accepting that he has no place to run to escape.
With no extras to speak of beyond a few promotional trailers and PSAs, the 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfers has the benefit of the entire dual layered disc for its audio-video content. For the most part, it provides for an outstanding presentation, but it is not without occasional problems. Compression is usually very good, but there are certain low light night scenes with heavy grain that give the compression algorithm fits. The chief issue is sporadic ringing along high contrast edges which is not constant, but with so many shots of expansive landscapes and sky backgrounds, there is no concealing it when it appears. The ringing is small in size and intensity, but will be very noticeable to those with large projection displays. I also noticed some odd horizontal banding across the top of the frame during a couple of night scenes during the middle of the film, but I could not reproduce them when I tried to find them a second time, so it may just have been my player acting up.
The one and only audio track is a Mongolian 5.1 track, and it is quite impressive. The expansive and dynamic track comes to life especially vividly during the films massive battle sequences for an immersive experience rendered with excellent fidelity and dynamics.
There are no on-disc extras. The disc comes packaged with an insert with a code that will allow viewers to download a Windows-compatible digital download of the film for a reduced price. I cannot verify the details as the title is not available for download before street date. It is usually something like a $2-3 charge.
When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with a series of skippable promotional spots and PSAs. All are presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound:
- Anti-Piracy PSA with scenes from “Casablanca” (1:00)
- Trailer for “Snow Angels” (2:09)
- Video Trailer for Run Fatboy Run (:31)
- Video Game Trailer for “Project Origin” (2:10)
- Anti-Tobacco PSA (:35)
The DVD comes in a standard Amaray case with an insert containing the code for unlocking the discounted digital download.
Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol" paints an intriguing if sketchy portrait of the formative years of Genghis Khan. While the screenplay at times seems a bit choppy, the film is worth seeing for excellent performances from its international cast and for its eye-candy location cinematography. It is presented on DVD with a generally good transfer with some unwelcome sporadic high contrast edge ringing, an excellent Mongolian 5.1 audio track, and no extras.