Behind warfare, a labor of love

Review -- B

June 20, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

Genghis Khan: fierce warrior, ultimate survivor, loving husband.

Yes, loving husband. That's the message of Sergei Bodrov's birth-of-a-nation epic Mongol, about the man who united all the Mongols and made them follow a handful of common laws instead of customs that they broke at will.

It's a man's-man adventure: You can feel your chest hair grow a centimeter for each minute of screen time (and at 124 minutes, that's a lot of hair).

But at the center of it all is this ferocious fighter's decision to choose his own bride as a child and stay faithful to her through thick and thin - although it's more like thin and thin for most of the movie.

She's the one who keeps prodding him to greatness by saying (I paraphrase), "Oh, you know how these Mongols are," whenever she's preparing him to expect the worst of people.

Bodrov clues us into other catalysts for his rise to the khan of all Mongols, such as witnessing his father's poisoning at enemy hands, enduring the treachery of fellow tribesmen and facing the outright evil of a tribe that conducts fearsome raids in animal-hide masks far spookier than the party masks in The Strangers. But without the missus, this guy would be nothing.

At its most distinctive, Mongol proves to be a moving portrait of a medieval yet modern marriage. The warrior trusts his wife implicitly. He responds with properly directed anger, never with petty jealousy or wounded pride, to the intimacies with other men forced on her by circumstance.

And though she complains that his mighty mission to unite the Mongols separates them for months and years at a time, she stands firm by his side whenever he is by her side. Tadanobu Asano, as the khan, and Khulan Chuluun, as his wife, are a couple for the ages.

To engage audiences who might yearn for some closer identification with the characters than their stoic courage permits, Bodrov provides the slippery, unexpectedly charming and involving figure of the khan's blood brother (Honglei Sun). He saves our hero in boyhood, supports him in manhood and upends tradition to fight to bring back his wife. When they become rivals, this good fellow doesn't know what hit him.

Without further historical and pop-cultural research, it's impossible to resolve the questions of how much did Conan the Barbarian take from Genghis Khan, and how much did Bodrov take from Conan the Barbarian for Mongol? Both movies essentially illustrate the same maxim from Nietzsche: That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

The movie would be an unbearably grueling endurance test for the audience and the hero were it not for the arid beauty of the Great Steppe and the sweep of the battles, rendered with splatters of gore that lend a Jackson Pollock-like excitement to the clear, strong staging.

For all that, Mongol is not a great movie or even a great battle movie. It dabbles in mysticism about the hero's two pilgrimages to Tengri, God of the Blue Sky, who lives on the Sacred Mountain, but fails to elucidate what happens there or make us feel the craggy mountain's supposedly otherworldly aura.

What's worse, though Bodrov establishes the geography of each battle, he leaves the greater landscape hazy except for titles that name some distant kingdom or disputed border and list a year that leaps past 10 years or more of off-screen action.

Prince Caspian did a better job of articulating an imagined countryside and conveying the idea of an entire empire in upheaval, but Mongol has the historical aura and mordant tone that compels more respect from critics and educated audiences.

Well, if that kind of upscale buzz pulls viewers into the art house for this one, that's OK by me. Mongol features some magnificent stagecraft and it's suitably roiling and touching as a martial-marital epic.


Watch a preview of Mongol at


(Picturehouse) Starring Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare. Time 124 minutes.

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