Dir. Sergei Bodrov
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

A 2008 Academy Award-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Mongol is a visually arresting motion picture. Directed by Sergei Bodrov, it has a lush visual style that elevates its material to appropriately mythic proportions. It tells the story of the rise of Genghis Khan and incorporates such large themes as destiny, ascendancy to power, and brotherly betrayal in a manner that is equal to their scope. This, I think, is the movie 300 was trying to be. Zack Snyder made the video game; Bodrov makes the movie.

Genghis Khan was born Temudjin in 12th Century Mongolia. When we meet him, he is nine years old, guided by his father the khan to select a bride. His father would like to use the occasion to reconcile with a tribe he offended, the Merkits, but at a stop along the way Temudjin becomes enamored with a girl named Borte and chooses her instead. He and his father leave, and he vows to return; he will make this promise to her many times throughout their lives.

Soon thereafter, Temudjin’s father is killed by poisoning. Thus begins a storied life of poverty, slavery, brotherhood, and bloodshed. The story will yield few surprises for viewers familiar with historical epics. Upon his father’s death, Temudjin is hunted by a rival, Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), who is threatened by Temudjin’s status as the son of the khan. From his youth well into adulthood, he suffers at the hands of his enemies, but is destined for greatness. He has two refuges: Jamukha (Honglei Sun), a friend who saved him and whom he considers his blood brother, and Borte (played as an adult by Khulan Chuluun), whose love is patient and unconditional.

The most compelling aspect of the film is the rift that forms between Temudjin and Jamukha as the result of a serious infraction committed by one’s tribe against the other’s. Their relationship develops with Shakespearean grandeur, as fraternal love morphs into bitter antipathy, though not with Shakespearean richness. The film is not interested in psychology and treats its characters always as broad archetypes: the great hero, the devoted wife, the power-hungry rival, and the brother-turned-enemy.

The strength of the film isn’t in its characterizations or story, but in its visual luster. It is a mythic story, shot with great beauty by cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov. For instance, note the memorable shots where Temudjin occupies the center of the frame, including one in which his head is locked in a wooden restraint as the rain begins to fall, and another of him as an imprisoned slave, where we see his dry, cracked skin behind iron bars. Though visualizing him in hardship, these shots exalt Temudjin, whose suffering becomes for us the trials of a great hero.

Bodrov directs battle scenes with lusty verve — perhaps too lusty. Blood sprays from soldiers on the battlefield in a manner that reminded me of Quentin Taranino’s arterial geysers in the Kill Bill films. At times, the graphic nature of the violence distracts from the beauty of the staging, as when an army of Merkits springs up all at once from hiding to ambush their enemies, or the aerial POV shot that follows an arrow from Temudjin’s archer to the very foot of Jamukha. Bodrov’s film tells the story of Genghis Khan’s early life as the stuff of legend. Scenes like these convince us.

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