|Oftentimes critics use words as shorthand to convey one
thing when they really mean another. The term epic, as example, is
often used to describe films that are merely long. This is an incorrect
usage, for epic also implies bigness in other areas- the film may be on
a grand subject- a war, the conquest of space, the life of a very
important and influential leader in human affairs, etc. But, merely
long films, like Bela Tarr’s Satantango, do not qualify. On another
level, terms like epic are also wielded to imply not only hugeness of
theme, but also to imply that the film or art or thing is also good, in
terms of its quality. After all, why use a superlative on something
that is not superlative in all senses? This, too, is not so. And a good
example of a film that can be called an epic, rightfully, in many
cinematic aspects, yet also be panned as, at best, a mediocre film, is
the 2007 film from Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, Mongol: The Rise Of
Genghis Khan. In short, no one will be comparing this film to any of
the films Andrei Tarkovsky wrought. It has far less in common with a
real cinematic artist like Tarkovsky, and far more in common with the
dreck Hollywood produces, from men like Ridley Scott (his recent films)
or Michael Bay.
The 125 minute long film starts fairly well: its first half hour or so features the future Genghis Khan (Temujin), as a child (Odnyam Odsuren) whose father, Esugai (Ba Sen), the khan of his tribe, is poisoned to death by a rival tribe, then treated to cruelty and slavery by rivals within the tribe. This, like much of the film, is based in historical fact, however melodramatized. The early scenes of the film, shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, makes excellent use of the raw beauty of the central Asian steppes of Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. But, then the screenplay, penned by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, simply tanks. After initial scenes of youth, meant to set the stage, quickly, for Temujin’s life, we then fast forward to him as a young man, out to avenge his father’s death, claim his childhood bride, Borte, and set about unifying the varied Mongol tribes into a nation, then an empire.
The problem is that all of this occurs with the rapidity and believability of a professional wrestling match, and with actors, outside of Tadanobu Asano, who plays the Adult Temujin, who simply are not professional enough to be believable. Honglei Sun, who plays Jamukha- Temujin’s childhood blood-brother and rival for Great Khan, is a one note, whose acting range has all the depth of his punk style haircut. Khulan Chuluun, who plays Temujin’s wife, Borte, is even worse. Yes, she’s nice to look at, but has no emotional range. She is chosen , as a child, by Temujin, to be his bride, and this somehow bonds her to him for life. This aspect of the film- the Hollywood style love story, is also a weak point. Yes, the real Borte was Khan’s wife, but Khan was a noted womanizer, with hundreds of wives and concubines, and hundreds more children. The idea that theirs was some modern sort of Western love story is simply untenable and ahistorical, as is the passage of the film where Temjin is imprisoned as a slave in Tangut, only to have Borte sell her body to a local caravan merchant, then, years later, when getting to her destination (although the film implies it is merely months), sans the merchant (whom she likely killed), she easily dispatches the Tangut guards, rescues Tyemujin, and, within minutes we cut to the former slave suddenly heading a rival army into battle with Jamukha’s forces, mere minutes after having been defeated by them, he was sold into slavery to start the filmic passage. Add to this the rather hit and miss CGI effects, and one is left with a very Lord Of The Rings version of Asian history, poorly acted, and even more poorly wrought. To end things on a down note, the film ends with a hard rock score. I’m not saying that historical and musical fidelity need always be followed, but given the MTV-like film that preceded it, the ending seemed a bit like an admission that all seen before was bullshit.
Next year the second part of a planned trilogy, called The Great Khan, is slated to be released, but I do not hold out high hopes for it. This film is told in flashback for its first 60%, with the film opening on Temujin in a Tangut jail, as a slave prisoner held up for ridicule, as if he were a zoo animal. On the positive side, although the CGI produces poor blood effects, the way that the blood squirts from the body when slashed, is quite realistic, and most of the battle scenes are quite exciting, even if they mix slow motion realism with obviously second rate effects. The film also demures biography for hagiography, making Temujin out to be an all wise and all knowing and benevolent figure. This is simply not so. Yes, as a long time student of the Mongol Empire, I think it was the first truly global civilization on the planet, and had many good qualities that sprung from its genocidal foundation. But, while Genghis Khan, himself, had many good qualities, the film presents a de facto saint, rather than a man as capable of savage butchery as he is of honoring his word.
This film was somehow nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, and one has to believe it’s only because of its subject matter and the fact of its provenance, because its artistic quality is simply not high. In many ways, it’s a B film masquerading as an A film, and one need merely to compare it to earlier epics like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and El Cid, to see where this film went wrong, in terms of acting, writing, and the eschewing of realism for video game level special effects (the final battle scene between Jamukha’s and Temjin’s forces, replete with darkening skies, is especially silly.
The DVD, put out by New Line Cinema, is utterly bare bones. Yet, this is the sort of DVD that screams for needing a commentary and/or a making of featurette, and a documentary on the historical Genghis Khan. Not that such could have justified the film’s failings, but they could have at least shed light onto why certain things in the film were portrayed a certain way. While a film historian’s commentary would be nice, even more elucidating would have been a scholar of the Mongol Empire and/or the Ancient Orient to discuss the schism between the film’s reality and that history bears. As it is, Mongol: The Rise Of Genghis Khan, is a mess of a film- intriguing enough in its pros and historical import, to get a mild recommendation for viewing, but too Hollywood in its screenplay deficiencies and logic to recommend with much fervor. Yes, it is a true epic, in all the ways one might compare it to those of David Lean, save for one: quality. And it is in that lack that this essay’s opening posit bears fruit. You decide if it is of a poisoned tree or not.
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