Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun
Sergei Bodrov, Sr.
Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov, Sr.
Kazakhstan's entry (watch out Borat!) into 2007's Academy Awards, "Mongol" is getting ready to land stateside with an arthouse run courtesy of distributor Picturehouse.
While "Mongol" was nominated for but didn't capture the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year, it did get the Audience Award during the 2008 Indianapolis International Film Festival for World Cinema with the second highest scores ever achieved in the festival's history. Likewise, "Mongol" did capture the Russia's Nika Award for Best Film last year.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov ("Nomad"), "Mongol" is the first in a trilogy of films based upon the life of famed warrior Genghis Khan. Covering Khan's formative years, "Mongol" is a surprisingly well-researched and intellectually stimulating action flick with awe-inspiring landscapes and and a respect for the traditions of the people it portrays.
Filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the landscapes captured in "Mongol" are mesmerizing and Dashi Namdakov's production design is practically a star player unto itself along with the costuming of Karin Lohr.
Certainly better than any action film thus far in 2008, "Mongol" perfectly blends the typical action flick components of action, violence, romance and loyalty.
The film opens in 1192 with Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano), who will become Khan, in captivity. Bodrov and co-writer Arif Aliyev wisely paint a balanced of portrait, an examination of his childhood, his early defeats and those experiences that turned him into the warrior he would become. It's an unusually intelligent approach that few American action filmmakers would take, instead preferring to focus on Khan's strength and exploits. By building up Temudgin's humanity his exploits as Khan, his exploits take on a deeper meaning.
For example, Temudgin is fiercely devoted to his wife, Borte (Khulan Chuluun). Borte, in turn, is fiercely devoted to him and it is their mutual strength that gives the film its emotional resonance even in the midst of violence that can be quite graphic.
Bodrov wants us to understand what truly makes Temudgin tick, from the early death of his father to his taking of a bride from a lesser tribe to his early friendship with Jamukha (Honglei Sun). Over time, it is Jamukha who will become his greatest adversary as Temudgin's power grows due to his loyalty to his own men and the families who follow him.
The multi-ethnic cast (think "10,000 B.C." with acting skills) is strong across the board, most notably Sun as Temudgin's conflicted blood brother whose lust for power conquers his devotion to family. The chemistry between Asano and Chuluun enhances greatly the film's romantic arc. Asano offers Temudgin the perfect blend of strength and humanity, a seemingly charismatic leader willing to defend friends, family and his nation to the point of death.
As stellar as the production design is, the film's accompanying score occasionally feels out of place with touches of techno and guitar that simply don't fit the film's otherwise flawless period setting. The battle scenes are graphic and intense without ever seeming gratuitous.
"Mongol" is a 120-minute film in the Mongolian language with English subtitles, however, its action and storyline is so universal that it doesn't take long for one to forget the subtitles.
Surprisingly accurate historically, beautifully designed and well-acted, "Mongol" should attract a strong arthouse audience when it opens later this month.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic