I wish I’d seen this on its theatrical release in the UK last year. Watching it on DVD recently I was impressed on many levels and not least by the fantastic images of landscapes in Kazakhstan and China. I confess that when the film was released I assumed that it was simply another East Asian epic martial chivalry film. In a way, it is, but it’s also something different. I wasn’t expecting it to be concerned only with the beginning of the story of the Great Khan and I hadn’t taken on board the complex institutional context of the film’s production.
Mongol is truly a ‘global film’ sitting alongside Ang Lee’s films made in China. Veteran Russian director Sergei Bodrov was born in Khabarovsk, the main city of the Russian ‘Far East’ and close to the border with China. In Mongol he has made a film about the 13th century conqueror of half the ‘known world’ – a story which begins a thousand miles to the West (there is a detailed plot outline on Wikipedia). The two main actors in the film are Japanese and Chinese. It was shot by a Dutchman and a Russian and edited by an Icelander and an American with production design, sound and other roles shared by Russians, Chinese and Germans (the very large team is described on the ‘making of’ DVD film as “300 Chinese and 100 Russians”). There are two Russian and two German companies listed and the film appears to have been shot on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (part of China) on a budget of around $20 million. I don’t really understand how ‘Mongolia’ gets included in ‘Country of Origin’ apart from the fact that most of the rest of the cast are Mongolian non-professionals. (For Academy Award purposes, the film was nominated as from Kazakhstan.)
There was a documentary construction of ‘known’ historical events on UK television a few years ago, so I wasn’t too surprised by the events depicted. Bodrov is quoted on Wikipedia as explaining that although Mongolian history wasn’t written down, he has used a Chinese account of Mongolian oral tales as the basis for the story – adding some of his own creative touches. The Americans seem to get very excited about the authenticity of these historical epics and some have objected to the new image of Genghis Khan. I’m not so bothered myself as the stereotypical reference to anything fascistic as “to the right of Genghis Khan” is not very helpful. The only real difficulty I had with the events depicted was that the director is quite fond of fades to black between scenes and that sometimes it was difficult to tell how much time had passed. This is compounded by the casting of Asano (very good) as a young man who must then age. Unless I’ve misunderstood the story, he is meant to be in his late teens or early twenties and should really have been played by another actor before Asano took the role over with Temudjin in his 30s.
There were obviously some difficulties over language amongst the crew and because Asano had to learn to speak Mongolian. Overall I don’t think this matters unless you know Mongolian. Visually it seems to me that the different facial features don’t matter either since this area of North Eastern Asia must have experienced considerable mixing of peoples anyway. The non-professional (Khulan Chuluun, a student journalist) who plays Börte, wife of Temudjin, is astonishingly beautiful.
But it was the landscape that really got to me. At times I was taken back to many Hollywood westerns, especially those dealing with the early wagon trains or with Native American life. I was reminded of some of the paintings of the American West – of the great plains with the mountains in the distance. And then I remembered the handful of Russian films I’ve seen depicting the steppes. I must go back and look at Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966) which I think has scenes depicting Tatar raids on Russia. For sheer spectacle though, the film I was most reminded of was Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (Hungary/USSR 1967), a highly stylised film with fantastic long shots of groups of men on horseback. These films were set on the western edges of the Central Asian steppes which stretch thousands of miles east. For someone used mainly to the pocket -sized hills and dales of West Yorkshire, the steppes are very exotic.
I’m looking forward to part 2 of this story of Genghis Khan which is announced for 2010.