If it turned out that Mongol had been made in the 12th century, I wouldn’t be altogether surprised. Like early country and rock-and-roll musicians, warrior-kings all seem to have very similar backgrounds, and Genghis Khan is no exception. His biography’s like a checklist: After running through a series of hurdles after his father’s assassination—slavery, betrayal, having his title stolen and wife raped—the-man-who-would-be-Khan beats an army bigger than his own and takes his place in the history books. But his place in the history books is that of a ruthless conqueror; in this movie, he’s made to seem ethereal, superhuman, and (absurd as it sounds) Christlike with his long, stringy hair and unkempt beard.
No attempts are made to give Temudjin (his birth name) personality and Tadanobu Asano, the Japanese actor who plays him, is tall and stiff and speaks in platitudes. (Following a tired, clichéd characterization shortcut, Temudjin doesn’t show any affect as a pudgy-faced child, either; the nine-year-old doesn’t flinch when a sword straddles his throat.) He shows some wan passion with his wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun), and plays with his kids; but he’s otherwise a cipher—probably so that the Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, could shower him in hokey mysticism. When he chooses his equally ascetic wife at age nine, they are lovers and devotees at first sight—even though neither seems like much fun to be around. And each time Temudjin prays, a wolf comes by to pay him a look-see. But, aside from his strategic acumen, the movie gives no explanation for why the gods (or the audience) should show this particular warlord any favor. The filmmakers seem to be lauding him for his so-called noblesse oblige, but do codifying a primordial legal system and sparing a monastery and the life of a friend really redeem him from his record of pillaging and bloodshed? (Perhaps he’s a such an ideal honcho because he believes that “Mongols have the right to choose.” But what happens when that comes into conflict with his edict to “Never betray your Khan”?) I didn’t come out of the movie liking or disliking Genghis Khan any more or less than I did when I had come in; I simply didn’t care.
There’s good news, though. The recreation of the Steppes and their culture helps to keep up one’s interest, and the battle scenes are staged creatively enough to keep them above the level of bloody humdrum. Bodrov has a penchant for point-of-view shots in the heat of conflict; masochistic as it sounds, one is drawn in when a spear is pointed right at one’s face, and on the big screen the effect is amplified. To credit the cinematographers, Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov, for their good work may be superfluous; if we didn’t have the regal portraits of Temudjin amidst the vast Middle Eastern landscape, the movie would be a complete sham. But they produce some truly memorable images: the profile of Börte, aged 10, with the mist forming a nimbus around her head; and Temudjin, after a defeat, lying weak and vanquished on the ground with the bald, fire-lit head of his captor—and friend—Jamukha (Honglei Sun) beside his own as Jamukha pleads Temudjin to grovel for mercy. Sun, an actor from China, makes his character—Temudjin’s blood brother and later rival—far more interesting than Asano’s. Jamukha sports a faux-hawk and an earring of sorts and casually cracks his back; he also laughs uncontrollably when he sees that Börte has slit the throat of a captor. Sun gives this movie a much-needed eccentric performance, and it’s delightful and poignant. One wishes that this Silk Road hipster—this Mongolian metrosexual—had been the one who’d made it into the history books instead.
(Endnote: The funniest moment of this film accompanies the ending credits. The score makes a transition from Mongolian-aboriginal to heavy metal.)