Committing the life and times of one of history’s most notorious conquerors to film is probably no small feat, but that’s exactly what Russian director Sergei Bodrov (‘Bear’s Kiss,’ ‘The Nomad,’ and ‘Shiza’) attempted to do in ‘Mongol,’ his first entry in a reported trilogy of Genghis Khan biopics. In doing so, Bodrov not only had to overcome vague and conflicting historical accounts, but he had to streamline two decades of tribal meltdown and cultural dissemination while transforming an infamous warlord into a relatable human being. He also had to make a twenty million dollar budget look like a hundred and lead a diverse cast and crew drawn from more than forty different countries. All things considered, the Academy Award nominated director succeeded.
’Mongol’ covers Khan’s formative years when he was just a boy named Temudjin (played first by Odnyam Odsuren and later by Tadanobu Asano), his marriage to a headstrong young woman (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat and Khulan Chuluun), and his rise to power amongst the warring clans of Mongolia. When his father (Ba Sen) is poisoned and killed, Temudjin is left alone in the care of his mother (Aliya). As he struggles through hardship and fights to survive, he becomes blood-brothers with a rising khan named Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar and Honglei Sun) and earns the loyalty and respect of several warriors. But all good things must come to an end. When Temudjin leaves and several of Jamukha’s men follow, the scorned khan decides to wage war with his friend. Little does he know that he will inspire Temudjin to unite the Mongols into one of the most fearsome and organized armies the world has ever seen.
To get right to it, Bodrov’s vision of 12th century Asia is heart-achingly beautiful and the resultant imagery, with stunning cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov, is a sight to behold. Even warmer words could be used to describe the performances of his talented cast. Asano and Chuluun tell more of the love story through their glances and touch than Bodrov’s script ever could. Stoic nods, mournful songs, and disarming smiles create the ever-devolving relationship between Asano and Sun more powerfully than their dialogue. And Odsuren’s interactions with Sen and Aliya craft more years of history between a young Temudjin and his parents than could ever be shown on screen. In fact, just between the sprawling vistas and expressive performances, it becomes clear as to why ‘Mongol’ was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award earlier this year.
None of that should belittle what Bodrov accomplishes with his and Arif Aliyev’s epic, lyrical screenplay. ‘Mongol’ isn’t ‘Braveheart,’ ‘The Last Samurai,’ or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ -- it’s a slow-burning character study that focuses on Temudjin, his enemies, and his allies, rather than the various battles and maneuvers he employs to obtain power. Key events occur off screen, years pass with little more explanation than a title card can provide, and major escapes and victories are the result of divine intervention, not Temudjin’s prowess on the battlefield (although that’s still evident throughout). Bodrov mainly hones in on the changes in Temudjin’s attitudes and circumstances, skipping over anything that isn’t central to the warrior’s development as a human being. His is a quiet, reflective, even at times meditative investigation into the person of Genghis Khan, the chaotic realities of his world, and the events that drove him to unite Mongolia.
Of course, depending on your expectations, these qualities could easily leave some viewers feeling utterly disappointed. The battle sequences often lose momentum prematurely, a climactic showdown quickly becomes an artsy reflection on Temudjin’s character rather than a legitimate look at how he wins a major war, and the second act grows a bit repetitive as Temudjin is captured, escapes, is captured again, escapes again, and… is captured again. I honestly wouldn’t blame anyone who walked away from ‘Mongol’ feeling underwhelmed or confused by Bodrov’s intentions. I also wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking the director was hemmed in by his budget more than his artistic vision. However, with proper expectations and some patience, the film still has a lot to offer.
I don’t mean to make a sweeping generalization, but I have a feeling American filmfans will be turned off by ‘Mongol,’ while international viewers will adore its meticulous character development and introspection. Personally, I found the film to be a refreshing change of pace. Sure, I would have loved to see a three-hour cut that expanded Temudjin’s early military conquests and delivered some lengthier battle sequences, but I can’t help but be charmed by what Bordov did instead. In the end, ‘Mongol’ is definitely worth watching. You may not think it was as engaging as I did, but it’s tough to deny that it boasts jaw-dropping cinematography and outstanding performances from everyone involved.
Simply put, ‘Mongol’s striking 1080p/VC-1 transfer is as gorgeous as its breathtaking cinematography. The presentation’s natural colors bring the 12th century to life with lush greens, warm browns, and bold reds. Realistic skintones and inky blacks round out the palette, giving the image considerable depth and convincing dimensionality. The harsh sunlight occasionally washes out the picture, but I always felt it enhanced the authenticity of the visuals. Better still, contrast is spot on, detail is impeccable, and delineation is revealing, even in the dark shadows of a prison cell. Fine textures and environmental details are jaw-dropping -- individual strands of hair, the flecks of blood resting on a warrior’s blade, and the smallest cracks in Temudjin’s skin are exquisitely rendered, to say the very least. To top it all off, I didn’t notice any significant artifacting, source noise, or edge enhancement.
In fact, the only things I caught were a few instances of banding scattered throughout the film. While by no means a frequent or debilitating issue, it was a bit distracting nonetheless. Regardless, ‘Mongol’ looks fantastic on Blu-ray, completely surpassing its DVD counterpart in every regard. It will make for a dramatic addition to any fan’s BD library.
Sigh. Part of me is hoping the latest batch of Warner/New Line releases with lossy, standard audio were already in the production pipeline when reviews and message boards began complaining about the studio’s reliance on barebones Dolby Digital tracks. Not only would I love to see Warner adopt lossless audio like every other studio on the planet, but, frankly, it’d be great if I could evaluate a film’s audio based on its performance rather than its squandered potential.
Alas, Genghis Khan is the latest victim of Warner’s sluggish adoption of lossless audio. ‘Mongol’s standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (640kbps) does an impressive job handling the film’s subtle character beats, wind-swept vistas, and quiet meditations, but it lacks the clarity and resolve of the best tracks on the market. Dialogue is suitably crisp and well prioritized, naturalistic ambience permeates every scene, and some healthy low-end support from the LFE channel gives the soundscape some much-need weight. Granted, the rear speakers are surprisingly subdued throughout the film, but it seems to be the result of the film’s front-heavy soundfield and minimalistic sound design. Likewise, battle scenes don’t have the same sonic intensity that other high-def war films have delivered. It’s unclear to me whether a lossless track could improve matters, but I imagine it would give the soundfield more room to breathe and allow listeners to more easily immerse themselves in the 12th century.
Like its standard DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Mongol’ doesn’t include any supplemental features. Quite a disappointment considering the film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy.
Ready for the dreaded declaration that sends people scurrying to video stores instead of Best Buy? Here goes. ‘Mongol’ may not be a perfect film, but gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances, and a rich story come together to create a resonant period piece and historical drama. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray edition of the film is a mixed bag. While it includes a stunning video transfer, the disc’s standard Dolby Digital audio track and non-existent supplemental package are a detriment to the release. Regardless, this one is definitely worth a look.