Men Alone

Mongol and Paranoid Park present wildly different but equally successful cinematic portraits

There is nothing small about Genghis Khan, uniter of the Mongols, scourge of Asia in the early 12th century, and, before his death, the ruler of pretty much every acre between the Pacific Ocean and the Black Sea. But the great khan started life, like anyone else, as a child, in this case a minor khan's son named Temudjin. And thus does Russian director/co-writer Sergei Bodrov find a way to fit the life of Genghis Khan—or at least his early years—within the confines of two hours on a screen in Mongol, new to DVD.

Mongol's early scenes establish the endless, lonely flat of the Asian steppes and telegraph the nature of the story that is about to unfold. Young Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) defies his father's wishes by picking his own future bride, Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), rather than waiting for the planned marriage that would seal over a feud with another clan. Soon after he watches his father die by poison, thanks to following the customs flaunted by treacherous fellow Mongols. Headstrong and now head of his household, Temudjin is still just a boy, and thus subject to the whims of stronger men, first usurper Targutai (Amadu Mamadukov), who banishes Temudjin and his family, then rising khan Jamukha (played as an adult by Honglei Sun), who adopts the wastrel as his brother. Temudjin (played as an adult by Tadanobu Asano) survives exile, failed revenge, enslavement, and prison, buoyed by steadfast Borte (played as an adult by Khulan Chuluun), and whips the Mongols into shape to face down sibling/rival Jamukha in the proverbial epic battle against long odds.

Despite its sweeping scope and action-flick trappings, Mongol is a love story, though tough love to be sure. After Temudjin's exile, Borte is forced to be another man's consort and bears him a son; reunited, Temudjin accepts the boy as his immediately. When Borte tries to join a passing desert caravan to rescue her imprisoned husband, the head of the caravan points out that she has no money; she notes matter-of-factly, "You know how I will pay you." Finally together with his family in peace, Temudjin frolics happily in the waving grass, but doesn't hesitate to leap into the saddle to meet his enemies, perhaps never to return. There isn't much character development here—Temudjin starts strong and upright and only gets more so—but Bodrov manages to capture the future emperor on a human scale.

Paranoid Park is also the story of one man, though "man" might be stretching it. Alex (Gabe Nevins, another of director Gus Van Sant's amateur castings) is an inchoate long-haired skater dude, shuffling his way through high school and life, teenage passiveness personified. He reacts to nothing, deflowering his cheerleader girlfriend (Gossip Girl's Taylor Momsen) with all the passion one might exhibit while getting a pedicure. His parents are splitting, but saying he seems numbed by it assumes that he felt anything about it to begin with. When he and his best friend hit the local skate spot—"Paranoid Park," a real place in Van Sant's Portland, Ore., hometown—he sits on his deck rather than drop into the bowl. The one time he does take action, take a chance, someone winds up dead.

Van Sant has spent several years in retreat from his Hollywood zenith, trading in the likes of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester for a return to his initial indie experimentalism in films such as Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Here he finds poetic and alluring middle ground between the two extremes. Shot by genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the man behind the camera for Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai's most brilliant films, Paranoid Park indulges in Doyle's trademark grab bag of impressionistic/expressionistic visual approaches—slo-mo, Super 8, overexposed film—and Van Sant's own tricky montage to slip back and forth in the narrative, the only constant being Alex scribbling in a journal, recounting the story the film tells. Nevins is no great acting discovery—Van Sant allows him to clap his hands over his face at the film's more intense turns, probably for the best—but the angelic blank of his face, under Van Sant and Doyle's various gazes, allows the viewer to project the suppressed turmoil, the uncertainty, the fear of being a teen faced with the notion of life becoming permanent, of choices made having consequences that echo forever, and finding a way to move forward despite all that. And it works.