An epic account of the rise of Genghis Khan (Asano), charting his journey from his ninth birthday, in 1172 AD, through to 1206 AD, the moment he unites the Steppe tribes and embarks on his staggering journey of conquest.
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Drawn from the one extant piece of original source material - The Secret History Of The Mongols, a curious blend of myth, legend and apparent fact - Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated Mongol is an impressive piece of epic filmmaking. The ancient manuscript, like many sagas, is somewhat repetitive, moving swiftly from a mythical ‘origin’ story into the early life of Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) - or Temudzhin as he was originally known – which unfolds in a seemingly endless cycle of triumph and loss. Life on the ancient steppe was dominated by tribal warfare, as horsemen constantly battered one another in a bid to capture livestock, women, and good grazing for their herds.
For Bodrov, this presents a challenge. He conceived the film as the first part of a trilogy, and it extends no further than the moment when Temudzhin vanquishes Jamucha (Honglei Sun), his former blood brother, to position himself on the cusp of greatness. The director sifts through the multiple layers of betrayal and revenge that lead to that point, a sequence that could disintegrate into a bloody, martial monotony.
Thankfully, the Secret History contains an intriguing chapter in which a rival clan kidnaps Temudzhin’s intended spouse, Borte (Khulan Chuluun), and the director develops her role to the point where she plays a pivotal part in her husband’s political and spiritual evolution. Mongol offers a considered portrait of Genghis, with Borte’s presence adding depth to the warlord’s emotional makeup; if there is simplicity in his and his brethren’s actions, they are simple folk. Bodrov also benefits immeasurably from his leading man’s performance, with Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu bringing a confidence and quietude to the part, which in turn adds gravitas to his epic journey. Like many sagas, Mongol carries its principal player through a period of shadow, when he is imprisoned by the Tangut kingdom. He endures his privations with grace and dignity. When he emerges, freed by Borte’s cunning, his goes on to fulfil his destiny, his journey painted on a truly epic canvas. The cinematography, rendering the stark, unworldly beauty of the Central Asian Steppe, is astounding.
With its breathtaking landscapes, bloody battles, bitter betrayals and an aching love story, Mongol is a sumptuously crafted epic.
Reviewed by Will Lawrence