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Mongol (2007)

by on 2010/11/08

Do not scorn a weak cub. He may become the brutal tiger.

~ Mongolian Proverb

The first in a trilogy about the life of Genghis Khan, Mongol is an insanely compelling movie about the infamous leader – from his boyhood to the early days as Khan of a unified Mongol nation.

Written and directed by Sergei Bodrov,  this 2007 film was born of an international collaboration between Germany, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. The result is a deeply sympathetic and textured portrayal of the man behind the legend.

It is said that one culture’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. In this case, Genghis Khan, the scourge of Eurasia is venerated by today’s Mongolians as the founding father of their nation. That veneration, careful attention to detail and profoundly excellent film-making shows though every frame of this astounding work. A movie that feels authentic down to its very core, Mongol is performed in Mongolian and Mandarin with English subtitles. 

Given the name Temüjin at birth, we meet 10-year-old Genghis Khan, son of Yesükhei, a minor tribal chief, on the day that young Temüjin is to chose his wife. Willful Temüjin refuses his father’s suggestion to pick his adolescent bride from the neighbouring Merkit tribe – part of his father’s scheme to curry favour with these dangerous rivals. Instead, Temüjin meets and selects Börte, an 11-year-old from his mother’s clan.

Promising to return in five years time to claim Börte, Temüjin rides back to his village with his father. On the way home, Temüjin’s father is poisoned by a rival Khan. His father’s heir, Temüjin becomes a 10-year-old Khan with only his mother for support. Soon the boy and his mother find themselves surrounded by brutal rivals bent on toppling the young boy from power (and possibly slitting his throat in the process). 

We flash forward though absolutely breathtaking scenes from the young boy’s life to meet the young man played by the brilliant Tadanobu Asano. Isolated, living hand to mouth and surviving several near-death experiences,  Temüjin the man finally returns to claim Börte (Khulan Chuluun). After a brief, joyful reunion, Temüjin continues to be dogged by brutish jerks who kidnap his new wife and burn his mother’s yurt to the ground.

Watching these scenes unfold, the viewer might little wonder that Temüjin became so completely obsessed with power and domination.

There’s so much good in this film it is hard to avoid blathering on. The battle scenes were absolutely hair-standing-on-end amazing. The dynamic between  Börte and Temüjin is achingly sweet and at times, funny. Every single shot of the steppes that the great khan rode his horse upon is like watching a living, breathing painting.

Also fascinating to watch  is Temüjin’s relationship with rival Khan and blood brother Jamukha, played by the ridiculously charismatic Honglei Sun. One review called Sun a “Chinese Marlon Brando” – a comment both accurate and funny.

Yes, Genghis Khan’s life was nasty and brutish (if not short) but I have to admit I’m dying to see more. The next instalment The Great Khan is due out this year.

* * * *

Rated 14A with scenes of violence and brief nudity

126 minutes

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