Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mongol: a kinder gentler Genghis Khan unites the Central Asian nomads, takes on Mongol hordes dressed as Slipknot

Y’all probably didn’t know this, but apparently Genghis Khan was a really cool guy. If Sergei Bodrov’s revisionist GK biopic Mongol has the right vibe, Temudjin, the 13th century Mongolian conqueror and uniter of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia most of us pegged as a bloodthirsty warlord with the usual accompanying penchant for raping and pillaging was in fact a thoughtful, almost serene upholder of a strict code of honour, respectful of his wife, generous with all his subordinates, and pretty damn cute when he smiled—which, despite countless terms of imprisonment, was often. Of course Mongol, the proposed premiere entry in a trilogy, only dramatizes the first third of Temudjin’s story, so maybe the nasty business comes later.

Savvy viewers of the ancient adventure genre will recognize the archetypical, fratricide-free first chapters, the death of the father, the forbidding storms, the trails of the boy, even the faux Nietzschean opening quote echoing Conan the Barbarian, among others films. Only gradually does Mongol distinguish itself with a peppering of anthropologic detail and historical gloss. There is something interesting in the fact that Temudjin selects his bride at the age of nine, and selects very well: not only does Börte grow up to be a total fox, she’s a profoundly devoted spouse, deft advisor (“You can’t cook two ram heads in one pot”), and sturdy bearer of children, though whether or not these kids are actually Temudjin’s—Börte spends some time as the captor of Temudjin’s no doubt salacious enemies—is never confirmed or even broached. Such willingness to avoid emotional complications is indicative of an overall tendency to render characters into flat types. Jamukha, Temudjin’s blood brother and arch enemy, is about the only character given any significant shading, thanks in part to Honglei Sun’s fun, devilishly charming performance.

Temudjin is played by Tadanobu Asano, a versatile, beguiling actor familiar from films as diverse as Gohatto, Ichi the Killer, Last Life in the Universe and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi. But while the casting is certainly inspired—were it a Western film about a white guy it would surely star the likes of Russell Crowe or some other hyper-masculine beau-hunk—relatively little is demanded of Asano. Temudjin is stoic, wise, supernaturally determined, and without hubris. He’s also a supernaturally strong warrior, at one point actually tossing a spear the size of a support beam with such force that it rips through a man’s chest and impales him to a tree.

Mongol, to be sure, has all the necessary ingredients of a crowd-pleasing epic (thus the Oscar nod): white hat heroes, gorgeous landscapes, insurmountable odds, big battle scenes drenched in CGI. It’s grandiose and expensive looking, with the pumped-up violence and discreet sex that defines the Hollywood model. It’s also, you know, kinda boring, or is it just me?


Paul Matwychuk said...

It ain't just you, JB. As last year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film trickle into theatres, it's slowly becoming apparently just what a square, unadventurous bunch of movies the Academy chose to honour instead of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Silent Light.

Also... "dressed as Slipknot"? Hee.

JB said...

I actually meant to include a photo of the Mongol hordes in the Slipknot gear but then forgot. Guess it's an inside joke. Fits well with the darkmetal running over the closing credits.

Did you notice how high the rating are for this movie on the critic sites? Having read a few reviews, I'm not sure that al that many critics were so in love with the movie, but it's almost like they feel obligated to direct the moviegoing hordes to see it