08 April 2008
(image from http://www.picturehouse.com/titles/mongol.php)
Dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007 (Russia/Germany/Mongolia/Kazakhstan)
Synopsis: Mongol tells the story of the young Temudjin, the Mongol princeling-turned-slave, who eventually becomes the warlord, Ghengis Khan. Injustice after injustice--on every level from personal to national--teaches Temidjin the value of the rule of law, but also the mercilessness with which that rule must be maintained.
This movie was a thrill to watch--highly entertaining epic fare. I'm no expert in the history of Ghengis Khan or of Mongolia, but I'd be willing to go out on a limb and say that there's not a ton of historical accuracy going on here. This is more of a mythological, national epic, not an attempt at history. As such, it joins several other recent Eastern tales for Western eyes, like the work of Zhang Yimou (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers) or Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like Hero, especially, Mongol seems to combine melodramatic romance with epic nation-building in a seamless, entertaining package, complete with splendid fight scenes, beautiful lovers, and even cute children. Ghengis Khan never looked like such a neat guy.
I watched two movies at the film festival last Friday night--this one, and a Spanish mystery called Yo (Me). Yo grew on me for days after I saw it, but although I initially rated Mongol more highly, its stock fell the more I thought about it. I can't compare the two movies two much--they are vastly different in every way imaginable--but one of the crucial differences is that Mongol takes control of the entire movie-going experience and decides, with its big budget, epic sets, and CGI-enhanced fight sequences, what you're going to think and feel while you're in the theater. That's cool, and I appreciate being played like an organ when I go to a movie (hey, that's what Hitchcock thought filmmaking was: playing the audience), but sometimes that kind of full mind and body invasion can leave me with a used feeling afterwards, and that's what happened with Mongol. I'd still recommend it, but the excitement ended up feeling a little too propagandistic for me. I imagine that Russians (and maybe even Germans) everywhere are getting a real adrenaline rush watching Mongol and identifying with this beaten, enslaved hero rises from the depths of his society to conquer half the world. I suppose that a lot of Russian folks are feeling a little like Temudjin the slave right about now, and, to listen to Putin, it's time for the slave to rise up and kick some ass. The irony will be if this movie experiences a successful release in the US (it is getting some sort of release here in June--not sure how many screens). That would kind of be like some thinly-cloaked Cold War allegory of the 1950s (some Western or sci-fi flick, maybe?) making it big in the former USSR.
At the end of the day, Mongol is eye and ear candy at best and massive-scale glorification of brutality at worst. Still, it was fun while it lasted...