Director Sergei Bodrov's Mongol doesn’t deviate too far from the typical historical figure biopic formula. In the beginning of the film, we see a haggard and worn-out Temudjin (who would later be called Genghis Khan) rotting away in a cage within the Tangut Kingdom. Similar to other biopics, we are left wondering how Temudjin ended up in such a sorry predicament, which of course triggers a flashback that comprises three-quarters of the film. We are then given a look into the heavily disputed origins of among history's greatest conquerors, who curiously seems more content in running from his larger responsibilities in favor of a simpler, elusive existence as husband and father.
Bodrov takes full advantage of the wide-open expanses of Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. The exquisite landscapes are complemented appropriately with a sweeping score that mixes a Western orchestral underscore with vocals and instrumental highlights that capture the feel of the Far East and the Great Steppes of Asia. As such, Mongol is aesthetically striking, with finely choreographed, though not overdone, fighting sequences spread throughout. The one visual drawback is that Bodrov favors using the same “red jelly” blood effects that made Zack Snyder’s 300 comical. Unlike in 300, however, Bodrov’s hand shows a finer touch when it comes to presenting a fight that shows the gruesome realities of battle while still preserving an artistry of motion.
Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) is presented to us as a deeply introspective character with a lingering sadness. Son of a great Khan who was assassinated by rivals, Temudjin's inheritance is taken from him by disloyal lieutenants before he has an opportunity to become a leader to his people. Much of the chaos of his early years stems largely from who he is as opposed to what he's done, which makes it more believable that a character in his position would rather run from than embrace his destiny. Odnyam Odsuren turns in a surprisingly mature and understated performance as the young Temudjin, whose demeanor and soulful expressions are carried into adulthood through Asano’s performance, seamlessly transforming the character from a timid young man into the fearless war-leader of the Mongol Horde, Genghis Khan. And in a film otherwise dominated by maleness, the story of Temudjin’s strong-willed, yet feverishly devoted wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) shines a light of its own, providing an excellent counterpoint to the larger plot of Genghis Khan's rise.
One could obviously argue that this film is just as biased and romanticized as the centuries-old Western Christendom depictions of Khan as a bloodthirsty and savage conquistador, but it is nevertheless refreshing to see this alternate take. And by combining the technical strengths of Western filmmaking with an Eastern sensibility, the film is saved from what would otherwise feature the kind of telltale Hollywood-ness that has doomed so many before it. To wit, there is no cry of “FREEEEEDOM!” from the lips of Temudjin, nor is there an aged Anthony Hopkins patronizing the audience by explaining the historical significance of what you’ve just seen. Mongol is not a masterpiece by any stretch -- despite its scope, the film fails to take any large risks -- but it is thoroughly satisfying and is well-worth its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. American distributors like Picturehouse would be well-advised to continue importing more films like Mongol.