Earlier this year, Mongol was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. It didn't win, but the nomination was richly deserved. Coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on October 14, the movie is visually stunning, historically interesting, and very entertaining. It can be difficult for foreign language films to break ground at the box office. They seldom get wide releases, and so it's hard for people in smaller towns to find them. If you have any interest in foreign films or historical epics, put Mongol at the top of your list to see in the home video format.
Russian director Sergei Bodrov focuses on the early years of Genghis Khan who, when we meet him, is known by his birth name of Temudgin. The film shows us certain aspects of his childhood: his father taking him to a neighboring tribe to find a future wife, seeing his mother enslaved, escaping from persecution. These early scenes lay important groundwork, as Temudgin sees the Mongols split into various factions and the skirmishes that are caused by that split.
Later, we see him as an adult (played by Tadanobu Asano). He has married Borte (Khulan Chuluun), the bride he chose as a child. So many accounts of Genghis Khan present him as a barbarian, yet the film depicts him as a loving husband and proud, ambitious leader who dreams of uniting all the Mongols against common enemies.
That's a very abbreviated version of the plot of Mongol. I go into such little detail because what physically happens isn't as important as why it happens. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the picture is that it humanizes Khan (actually Temudgin) so that we may understand what might have led him to eventually conquer half the world. Scarred by things he saw as a child, fueled by patriotism for his country, and driven by his undying love for Borte, he endures both imprisonment and combat for what he thinks is right. The approach Bodrov takes offers shape to our preconceived notions about Genghis Khan. Which is not to say that the film glamorizes him - he is, in fact, quite flawed at times - but rather to say that it provides important perspective on a historical figure.
Tadanobu Asano is outstanding in the central role. Commanding and sympathetic, he draws us in, making us eager to understand more about how Temudgin works his way toward his destiny. Some actors are great playing leaders, but not identifiable humans. Others can be relatable, without selling us on the idea that others would follow them. Asano does both superbly, in much the same way that Russell Crowe did in Master and Commander.
There are, of course, some battle scenes, which are magnificently staged. They feel real, rather than the overly-staged and -choreographed battles that sometimes mar historical epics (Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, etc.). The sense of danger is conveyed, as is the sense of strategy Temudgin brought to combat. This is most notable in the finale, when he leads his outnumbered troops into battle with some innovative tactics.
Gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography and art design add to the realism. Mongol is the kind of movie you can get lost in. It's amazing to look at without ever being "showy" or taking you out of the story. The first-rate production values add something palpable to the film's historic value.
Mongol ends with Temudgin about to embark on the events that would turn him into Genghis Khan and earn him eternal recognition. There's an old saying about how the journey is more important than the destination. In his case, the destination was pretty significant too, but the journey there undoubtedly makes for a riveting cinematic experience.
( 1/2 out of four)
Mongol will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in its original widescreen format on October 14. There are no special features, but the movie looks and sounds phenomenal on DVD.
Mongol is rated R for sequences of bloody warfare. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
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