Genghis Khan was both a real figure of twelfth-century history and a legend. Unifier of Mongolia’s warring tribes, conqueror of Asia, founder of the largest contiguous empire of all time, invincible fighter, unholy monster – a man so vast in his achievements, so mythic in his legacy, that he seems simply to have been made for big-screen biopic treatment.
A superficial glance at Mongol, with its sweeping shots of the Asian steppes, its occasional spatterings of CG blood, its two-hour duration and its demonically resolute protagonist, might suggest a film that will conform to all the usual expectations of a war epic but in fact what Sergei Bodrov has crafted is anything but conventional: a portrait of a leader forged as much by blind chance and opportunism as by courage and cunning.
Set during the formative years of Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), long before he acquired the title Genghis Khan, the film focuses less on military victory than on instructive failure and raw survival, as the young man endures (and escapes, or at least is rescued from) a succession of humiliating imprisonments and enslavements.
If the film is unconventional, so too is its hero, who regards his resourceful wife Borte (Khulaan Chuluun) as a friend and equal, who unhesitantly accepts her illegitimate children as his own, and who cultivates loyalty from his men by treating them fairly and well something that creates friction with his blood brother Jamukha (Honglie Sun), who is a stickler for the traditional Mongol ways and starts to see Temudjin as a potentially dangerous rival in command. In the film’s climactic scenes, the former friends will meet as enemies on the battlefield in a desperately uneven fight that will elevate Temudjin thanks to a small miracle from the heavens above from an illiterate outcast to the great man recorded by history.
Temudjin’s strategy here, as he himself expressly concedes, depends in part on a deus ex machina, and to that extent it may seem no strategy at all. Indeed, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the film’s ending will no doubt leave many viewers feeling dissatisfied and disappointed, and rather typifies the film’s more general disregard for the norms of genre. Yet in fact Temudjin’s talent rests precisely in his ability to take full advantage of what divine intervention (or is it just plain old meteorology?) provides, and to inspire in his troops a revolutionary way of looking at the world, born from years of suffering, desperation and hard luck.
The ending, like the film as a whole, shows a merging of the random vagaries of time with the divine machinery of myth, to create a truly rounded picture of the factors that can turn a flesh-and-blood individual into a living legend on the very crest of history.
Mongol may be a little too repetitive to justify its length, and it may deny viewers the sort of wall-to-wall swordplay and wire-fu that we Westerners have come to demand from Eastern epic, but look beyond the surface and you will see a film of great beauty, and even greater insight into the mysterious workings of history – and Japan’s great avatar of stillness, Tadanobu Asano (Vital, Last Life in the Universe, Bright Future), puts in a mightily unassuming performance as the scourge of God. This is truly an epic for those who have grown weary of epics.