Epic 'Mongol' Strongest When It's Most Intimate

Tadanobu Asano as Genghis Khan i i

A good man, down: Mongol argues for a Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) driven by a painful past. Igor Vereshagin/Picturehouse hide caption

itoggle caption Igor Vereshagin/Picturehouse
Tadanobu Asano as Genghis Khan

A good man, down: Mongol argues for a Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) driven by a painful past.

Igor Vereshagin/Picturehouse

Mongol

  • Director: Sergei Bodrov
  • Genre: Historical Epic
  • Running Time: 126 minutes
Tadanobu Asano and Khulan Chuluun i i

Domestically inclined: Temudjin (Asano, left) will be Khan — with an assist from the loyal, wily Borte (Khulan Chuluun). Alexander Zabrin/Picturehouse hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Zabrin/Picturehouse
Tadanobu Asano and Khulan Chuluun

Domestically inclined: Temudjin (Asano, left) will be Khan — with an assist from the loyal, wily Borte (Khulan Chuluun).

Alexander Zabrin/Picturehouse

As he conquered much of the known world, Genghis Khan had his way with so many defeated women that today an estimated 16 million men carry his Y chromosome. Odd, then, that Russian director Sergei Bodrov's account of Khan's early years emphasizes the warrior's rapport with his strong-willed wife.

But it's the relationship between Khan-to-be Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) and the loyal, wily Borte (Khulan Chuluun) that's at the center of this Oscar-nominated widescreen tale, whose Mongolian locations are more consistently epic than the story.

There are several combat scenes, as Temudjin fights to control the disorganized and often-feuding Mongol clans. Horses gallop, swords slash and arrows darken the sky, just as in classic Hollywood battle dramas — though the cartoonish spurts of computer-generated blood identify this as a contemporary movie.

Yet the film more often chronicles the reversals Temudjin experienced as a boy and young man, humanizing Khan by showing the defeats that drove him to become a world-beater.

The cocky son of a warlord, Temudjin finds himself a slave at 9, after his father is poisoned. Not for the last time, a wooden yoke is placed around his neck.

Later, Temudjin is sold to an arrogant foreign official, who puts the Mongol on display in a cage. Only the great thunder god Tegri — and Borte, of course — can save him.

Bodrov (whose best-known previous film is The Prisoner of the Mountains) often follows the actual history. It's true, for example, that Temudjin accepted as his own the children that Borte conceived during the long periods when he was enslaved or imprisoned. The movie does turn to fiction, however, to fill in some gaps in the record, and goes all mystical to depict Temudjin's relationship with Tegri, who's incarnated as a wolf.

For the charismatic Asano, the James Dean of today's Japanese cinema, Genghis Khan is another in a line of taciturn, soulful killers. Speaking phonetic Mongolian, Asano isn't entirely convincing as a 12th-century warlord from the steppes. But he does evoke sympathy for a man long dismissed as a barbarian, and that's the major accomplishment of a film that succeeds more as an intimate character study than as swashbuckling entertainment.

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