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Mongol (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Running time 124 minutes

For centuries, very little was known about the private life of Genghis (pronounced Jen-gis) Khan (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano). The Mongols were so secretive that nobody knows to this day where he is buried. But there did exist a text known as “The Secret History of the Mongols” that was allegedly written shortly after his death. But it was an epic poem, written in Mongol. There was a Chinese translation 2 centuries after his death. The Chinese used it in schools to teach the Mongol language. There wasn’t an English translation until the mid-20th Century. Then, a little later, a much better one. I read it several years ago. It is a fascinating read.

If you decide to accept it as fact, it shows that Genghis Khan wasn’t the monolithic Hitler-like monster history has painted. It’s true that the Mongols conquered most of the known world and that they were ruthless. But before they put a city under siege, they would offer terms. If the city would surrender without a fight, they wouldn’t kill anyone and they would leave the existing administration in place, only with the condition that they report to Genghis Khan and pay tribute, and adopt Mongolian law (an admirably equitable way of dealing with one another, which Genghis Khan created). Many did and were spared to live good lives. Those who didn’t were massacred, men, women, and children, without mercy.

Russian producer-director Sergei Bodrov (who also co-wrote the script with Arif Aliyev) has created a story that one imagines when reading “The Secret History.” Filmed on location where the events occurred, the cinematography (D.P’s Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers) is almost overwhelmingly beautiful.

This isn’t the story of the Genghis Khan the conqueror. This is the story from when he was 9-years-old to the day he assumed the mantle of leader of all the Mongols. From the day his father was murdered, there were people trying to kill him. This is as exciting as any thriller out there today.

Bodrov has taken liberties with “The Secret History,” and that’s his right. I was skeptical when I read it, because it reads like a Ludlam thriller. Two differences were the way he treats the end of the relationship between Temudgin (Genghis Khan’s given name) and his best friend, Jamukha (Honglei Sun), and how he treats a ten-year gap in Temudgin’s life. Bodrov speculates that he was a prisoner for those years, but that is sheer speculation.

This isn’t just a story of how a man became the world’s greatest conqueror; it’s also a sweet love story. Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren as a 9-year-old) met his first wife, Borte (Khulan Chuluun) when he was nine years old and on his way to another village with his father to pick out a bride. He picked Borte en route, and his father made a deal with Borte’s father, the chief of the small village, that they would be wed in five years. The next day his father was murdered and Temudgin’s life changed forever. But he never forgot Borte and years later went to war to get her. All of this is told in this film.

There are a few graphic battle scenes, but fortunately, they are very few. Bodrov wisely realizes that this is a human story, not a story of huge armies clashing on vast plains with body parts flying all over the place, although we do see some of that. During the battle scenes, I must admit that my mind wandered. The film would have been better without them.

This is the best of film, one that entertains and educates. In Mongolian.

June 2, 2008