Sunday, December 21, 2008


"All Mongols do is kill and steal." These words are uttered near the end of the film Mongol by our hero's wife, Borte, played by Khulan Chuluun. By that point, all the moviegoer can do is gasp, "No kidding."

This is a movie about people who "don't kill children" -- but who will enslave and torture the offspring of dead enemies until they grow up so that then they can kill them. If you are looking for a romantic trip to empires past, this is not the film for you.

Some of us, though, might find it refreshing to see a film that portrays the childhood of Genghis Kahn as it may well have been: grubby, violent, and painful amidst the magnificent landscape of Mongolia. The plot would be improbable were it not for the fact that it is based in the legends about Temudjin, later known as Genghis Khan: that he was the son of a minor chieftan whose father was poisoned not long after he arranged for the marriage of his son. Many misadventures follow, which you will have to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that what little moral this film has to offer is summed up in the words of Temudgin's father: "choose carefully" when it comes to marriage-- or perhaps, pay attention when a good woman chooses you.

"Choice" is the unifying theme of the film: choice and the lack of choice, the contrast between being loved and unloved, free and slave. There is a strong sense throughout the film that indeed, this young man has been chosen for great things: chosen by the god, chosen by a good woman, ultimately chosen by the people of the steppes.

Most refreshing is the sense that we are seeing history as it might have happened. It is in Mongolian, with subtitles. People are not pretty by Western standards (well, maybe except for Borte and the child Temudjin) and the violence is definitely not pretty. People get sick in disgusting ways, they get and stay dirty, and after a while one is grateful that there is no high-tech arrangment for smelling the action.

One is equally grateful, however, that one can see: the cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov is utterly breathtaking. The soundtrack is remarkable in that it retains a distinctly un-Western feel without resorting to cliche: the Finn, Tuomas Kantelinen has made a remarkable accomplishment.

There are gaps in the narrative that may frustrate some: we see Temudjin get into scrapes from which he mysteriously escapes, but that is in keeping with the mythic quality of the story. The film's primary source is the The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th century Mongolian account of the life of Genghis Khan written shortly after his death. According to an interview with Sergei Bodrov, the filmmaker, his interest in making the film comes from his dislike of stereotypes: the Khan has been generally vilified by historians, whether Soviet, Chinese, or European, and that is not the way he is understood by Mongolians. This is the Mongolian account of his life, and it is certainly fascinating.

Thumb's up for Mongol.


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