Young Khan’s origin story is filled with blood and thunder (literally)
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun
The year 2008 has not been kind to foreign and independent film. In January, only 17 indie features were picked up by distributors at the Sundance Film Festival, a drop from $53 million in deals in 2007 to a mere $25 million in 2008. This year’s highest-grossing import so far, the sentimental Mexican immigrant drama Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), barely scraped up $12 million at the box office. Making matters worse, Paramount Pictures recently announced it was folding its indie label Paramount Vantage (less than six months after winning Academy Awards for There Will Be Blood). Last month, Warner Bros. said it would close its specialty division, Warner Independent Pictures. (Guess all that March of the Penguins money finally ran out.) At the same time, Picturehouse, the indie arm of New Line Cinema, was shuttered after corporate overlords Time Warner made New Line Pictures just another a subsidiary of Warner Bros. None of this paints a very rosy picture for the future of films that do not star Will Smith.
Into this seemingly unreceptive environment comes the beautiful-yet-visceral Kazakhstani film Mongol. The heart-pumping historical drama was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category earlier this year. Obviously, the film’s distributor (the soon-to-vanish Picturehouse) was not able to capitalize on that good fortune, and the film is only now hitting American theaters. Here’s hoping it manages to locate some sort of receptive audience, because it’s certainly one of the best foreign films of the year.
Mongol takes us back to the 12th century to relate the early life of infamous Asian conqueror Genghis Khan. Throughout most of the world, he’s remembered as a genocidal military leader. (You may recall him showing up as a bad guy in an episode of the original “Star Trek” and contributing his DNA to the evil Serpentor in the “G.I. Joe” cartoon. Or not. Maybe that’s just me.) In Mongolia and China, however, Khan’s viewed as an ethnic hero who united his people, loved his children and stuck by his wife through thick and thin. (This guy was a lover and a fighter.)
The film begins with a Mongolian proverb: “Do not scorn the weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger.” Our weak cub here is 9-year-old Temudjin, son of his clan’s aging Khan. In time, of course, this cub will mature into the brutal tiger known as Genghis Khan. But for now, we’re only concerned with young Temudjin (played, initially, by intuitive amateur Odnyam Odsuren) and his formative years.
One particularly bad day out on the chilly steppes, Temudjin’s father gets assassinated by a rival clan. This leaves Temudjin the rightful heir to his father’s title. No self-respecting Mongol warrior is interested in following the orders of a 9-year-old kid, however. Instead, one of the clan’s scimitar-swinging tough guys simply loots all of the Khan’s belongings, declares himself leader and threatens to behead little Temudjin. Temudjin’s tough mom (pretty much everybody’s tough in this story) intervenes, citing Mongolian tribal law, which forbids the killing of women and children. Temudjin’s rival accedes, vowing to simply behead the brat when he hits puberty (or the approximate height of a wagon wheel, which seems to be the Mongolian mark of manhood).
Forced into slavery, Temudjin eventually effects a successful escape and reaches adulthood, head intact. Played as an adult by charismatic Japanese idol Tadanobu Asano (Funky Forest: The First Contact, Zatoichi, Ichi the Killer), manly Temudjin sets about locating his pledged bride, regaining his rightful position and getting revenge on all those who wronged him. This is not an easy task. Even as a young adult, our hero spends much of his time bouncing in and out of slavery, jail and other woeful situations. This could be viewed as an apologist retelling of Genghis Khan’s early life, but it seems to jibe with what is known historically about the man. Over time, the narrative feels less like a “he had a rough childhood” sympathy ploy and more like a “here’s how he became such a badass” origin story.
Mongol is one of those films that’s so damn epic, you don’t actually feel bad using the word “epic” to describe it. Veteran writer/director Sergei Bodrov revels in the adventurous plot, vivid setting and artery-severing action. The result is something like Lawrence of Arabia crossed with Conan the Barbarian. That isn’t meant as a slight, either. Set in such an ancient and foreign world (to Westerners, anyway), Mongol feels quite a bit like a fantasy. With horses galloping, swords swinging and blood spraying freely, Mongol is no quaint little history lesson.
The film covers some major ground in its 126 minutes, and audiences may find themselves having to re-orient themselves every few scenes. Did we just skip several years? Where did that infant come from? Why is Temudjin’s wife suddenly wealthy? Given the scope of the film (stretching 30-odd years from the death of Temudjin’s father to our boy’s big name change), Bodrov and fellow screenwriter Arif Aliyev are obliged to gloss over a few transitional niceties. Even so, this one’s got a sweeping love story, CGI-infused battle scenes and tons of vengeance-fueled drama. The only differences between this and a traditional Hollywood epic are the presence of subtitles and the absence of Brad Pitt in hair extensions. ... C’mon, Iron Man already broke $300 million this summer. Mainstream Hollywood is doing fine. Why not send a few bucks toward the indie market now?