That director Sergei Bodrov’s 2007 historical epic Mongol is allegedly a biopic—the first in a series of three installments chronicling the life of legendary conqueror Genghis Khan—seems a moot point. There is little known historical record of the ruler’s younger days, and Bodrov admits that for inspiration he drew heavily on a Chinese poem, discovered a century ago, that allegedly details the Khan’s childhood and early marriage.
It’s good, then, that the inspiration Bodrov found in that moldering epic was evidently considerable—deep and provocative, leading the director onward to create a film full of characters both vividly imagined and powerfully rendered. As there’s little to recommend Mongol as a work of painstaking historical exactitude—and indeed much to suggest that it deviates substantially from the known facts of the Khan’s life and character—it must ultimately rise or fall on the momentum of its own dramatic sweep.
It rises, and quite nicely, thank you. Bodrov’s Khan—his given name is Temujin, and he is played by Japanese thespian Tadanobu Asano—is a precocious and honorable savage, a shrewd warrior who, at age nine, tricks his father into letting him choose his own bride rather than submit to an arranged marriage. He insists, from the outset, that his way is not the way of other Mongols—fierce, merciless nomads whose moral order is fixed by equal portions of pragmatism and bloodlust. As he grows older and rises in the esteem of his tribe, slowly gaining followers, he conceives a new code of ethics as part of his plan to unite his historically fractious people, a code characterized by a degree of mercy and humanism heretofore unknown in the kill-or-be-killed milieu of the Mongols’ world.
It makes for an appealing fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. To be sure, the real Khan was, in certain respects, almost a progressive—at least by the measures of marauding nomadic dictators. He believed in religious freedom, the rule of law, and equitable treatment for even his low-ranking soldiers.
He also killed his half-brother, at age 13, over a hunting dispute, was later suspected of ordering the death of a son, and mandated the death penalty as punishment for even minor violations of his Yassa code of conduct. Bodrov, who co-wrote the script with Arif Aliyev, chooses to overlook the harsher realities of Temujin’s rise and rule, and paints the Khan’s life instead with broad, noble strokes.
The choice turns out to be a good one, for drama’s sake if not for history’s. Rather than wrestling with (ultimately unanswerable) questions of the real Temujin’s seemingly complicated morality, Bodrov gives us an epic that is remarkable for the succinctness and purity with which it presents its basic themes of honor, loyalty, and love. Asano is a model of quiet strength, of restraint and self-possession; his Temujin is wholly believable as both the driven warrior who searches for his stolen wife with desperate ferocity, and as the implacable stoic who sits, chained, in quiet reflection, hour after hour, upon being captured by his enemies.
At the heart of Mongol is the love story of Temujin and Borte (Khulan Chuluun), the sassy nomad girl whom the little Khan seems fated to choose as his future empress at the tender age of nine. There is a wonderful and effortless chemistry between Asano and Chuluun, a depth of passion conveyed as much with quiet glances and pleading eyes as with heavy breathing and heated embrace. Without the substance of their love story, Mongol would be a much less watchable film, and certainly a far more austere one.
For all its dramatic strength, Mongol suffers from a couple of notable narrative flaws. In particular, it glosses over the Khan’s decisive power play; we see the emergence of the charisma and fair-mindedness that draw followers to Temujin’s camp, even when it means leaving behind powerful rival chieftains. But he rises from a penniless, lesser warlord to leader of the second-largest band of Mongols in Asia in scenes that run practically back to back; the omission of relevant backstory is puzzling, and begs too many questions in a movie that purports to chronicle Temujin’s ascent.
But again, Mongol's strength, intended or not, lies in the romance of its narrative—its adventurous warrior spirit, the poignancy of its love story—art-house credentials and historical pretensions notwithstanding. Will the same hold true for parts two and three of this ambitious epic, or will the tale of Temujin’s accruing power outgrow the narrow confines of black-and-white storytelling? It’s an interesting question, but one we needn’t answer now. Because for now we have part one, Mongol, a film that’s eminently satisfying in its dramatic simplicity.