I guess behind every successful man lies a woman, and in Mongol, depicting the early life of Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan Temudjin, this couldn't be more true. In fact, Russian director Segei Bodrov had pivoted the film and its narrative on the love story between Temudjin and his young bride Borte, whom had provided him objectives, and also an advisory insight into what he should, and should not have done under various circumstances.
And I suppose given her resolve to stick by her man despite whatever hardships and injustices thrown at them, is more than reason enough for Temudjin to accomplish his destiny. Of course this biopic has loads of artistic license taken, but I felt this angle was a unique one at looking at one man's rise to power and becoming an historical legend in his own right. Books notwithstanding, my only other film exposure to a Genghis Khan character, would be some Hong Kong television serial a long time ago.
The story begins when Temudjin is nine (Odnyam Odsuren), and his father Esugei (Sen Ba) takes him to select a bride from another tribe. Who would've guessed that Temudjin got smitten by the girl Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat) who is very direct and speaks her mind, and without hesitation coupled with some sexist comments from dad, makes his very obvious choice. But things don't go smooth sailing for our young chap, who got to witness his dad's demise leading to the looting of his household property, which sets the stage for his realization that the Mongols as a people, are nothing but loose sand.
Art house familiar face Asano Tadanobu takes over the adult Temudjin role, and we see that great men are not born overnight, but have a number of hurdles to clear and overcome before they earn their recognition. For Temudjin, his life is mainly that of being prey to enemy Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) who sees the boy as a threat, and also the falling out with sworn brother Jamukha (played by the excellent Chinese actor Sun Hong Lei). For the most part, Temudjin's early life is not remarkable, only owing to incredible luck that he wasn't dispatched to heaven early, and spent a long time being under chain, a slave, or an exhibit.
So that's when Chuluun Khulan's adult Borte comes in. As Temudjin's wife, she performs sacrifices time and again to bail her man out of trouble, each time with faith that she'll never be separated from him again. But with the propensity of Temudjin getting into unwanted trouble, such becomes wishful thinking on her part. I would have loved to see more scenes of this character of strength and spunk, and great insight into the psyche of their people, since she imparts that aspect of her knowledge to Temudjin in too far and too few terms.
This international production comes with plenty of beautiful landscapes shot on location in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, which makes it a pretty gorgeously looking film to follow. If anything, it compensated for a relatively choppy narrative which fast forwarded itself for convenience, which sometimes leave you begging for more since things happen quite miraculously without explanation. Take for instance Temudjin's sudden meteoric rise to have conquered half of Mongolia. One moment he's praying to the gods for strength, and the next he's one more obstacle away from being Khan.
The story by Arif Aliyev and Segoi Bodrov also sought to examine why Temudjin would become a great Khan, and I felt that a clearer explanation through demonstrations in scenes would serve to reinforce the message further. We know that he has his mercies, and his sharing of the spoils with his troops make him popular and just. And not forgetting the laws that he would instill amongst his fearsome warriors, whom we do not see much in action, despite having some mean looking but outnumbered masked riders go headlong against their enemies with curved swords drawn.
For those who might be seduced by the notions of watching yet another film steeped in historical battles, you might just come away a tad disappointed. This is not to say that the fight sequences here were weak, but there could have been a lot more, and an extension of the sequences wouldn't be unwelcome. Loads of CG blood got spilled on screen and the sword fighting's nothing but lethal with its slash and parries, slicing and dicing, and decapitations. Don't go looking for that fulfillment of a promise of superb military strategy ala Red Cliff, because sadly it doesn't happen.
But that aside, the film still works because of its focus on the man himself, much like Oliver Stone's Alexander, his predicaments, love life, and some statements about the infighting of the various nomadic Mongolian tribes, and the desire by Temudjin for unification. The original trilogy planned by Bodrov is now a two-parter, and I'm definitely looking toward the next installment, which this one had left you wanting more. Definitely recommended, especially for the fans of biopics about legendary conquerors.