Genghis Khan film is more than a postcard view of Mongolia

(Starring Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Sun Honglei, Odnyam Odsuren and Pai Ying. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Rated R; 2:04. LEO Report Card: B)

Don’t be mislead: This Oscar-nominated foreign language film about the early life of Genghis Khan is not a plodding, pretentious art-house flick; in fact, it’s only slightly more cerebral than that other Khan movie, “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.” “Mongol” is a movie of slow-mo hacking and slashing, magic and betrayal. Save for the mind-blowing vistas of Mongolia and the subtitles, there’s nothing about it that would be out of place in the local megaplex this summer. In fact, think of it as “Gladiator” meets the National Geographic Channel.

The strength of the film is that it’s essentially a travel brochure for Mongolia, whose peaks and plains save the film from being forgettable. Much like how Peter Jackson used New Zealand in “The Lord of the Rings,” director Sergei Bodrov revels in the dichotomy of the Mongolian steppe. From a distance, it provides wide, arresting views. Close up, you’re reminded that it’s a desert in the sky. The harsh and beautiful land is vast, romantic and a great place for a sword fight. 

This international production (a Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese cast with a Russian director and partly-German financing) focuses on only the first 20 or so years of Khan’s life, from the day at age 10 when he witnessed his father’s murder to the battle that united the Mongols into the force that would conquer most of Asia. Along the way, there’s a shit-ton of bad luck: As a 10-year-old, he’s hunted by his father’s successors, captured and tortured a bunch of times, lives in various forms of slavery and has his wife stolen.  

At times, it can all seem a bit too much (I distinctly heard a sigh of frustration from the audience the third time he’s caught by his enemies). But when this happens, Bodrov wisely switches direction. As the audience tires of the love story, a battle erupts. When the young protagonist’s luck seems to have bottomed out, fate intervenes. The press release says “Mongol” is “based on leading scholarly accounts,” but it’s doubtful that they burdened Bodrov. There are way too many hints of magic and divine providence for that to be the case. 

Ultimately, “Mongol” is not really about setting the story straight on Genghis Khan, although it’s more sympathetic than most accounts of the serial rapist and mass-murderer. It’s really about combining swords and scenery, which is done very well. The action scenes are well-choreographed, frenetic and hilariously bloody, bearing more than a slight resemblance to the fight sequences in “Gladiator.” Still, compared with “300,” “Mongol” is restrained. 

Delightfully exotic, “Mongol” is a far fresher experience than either of those two movies, but not necessarily better. 

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