Review by Robert Bell
Mongol is a beautifully shot, wonderfully scored epic drama sure to find international success with a surprisingly American disposition. While the film features stunning cinematography and exceptional battle sequences, it also feels like yet another bloated Western epic with atrocious exposition-based scripting and direction that focuses on eye candy rather then subtext or meaning. Mongol isn’t a particularly good film, but marks an improvement for writer/director Sergei Bodrov (Bear’s Kiss), who has at least managed to tell a linear, somewhat cohesive story here.
In 1192, 9-year-old Temudgin has been taken to choose a wife from the troublesome Merkit clan as part of a Peace agreement. On his way there he meets a spirited young woman named Borte who captures his heart. Temudgin declares her to be his wife. A sable-skin-coat is traded, and they are to be married in five years. This doesn’t thrill Targutai of the Merkit clan, who then poisons Temudgin’s father and takes power of the clans.
The rituals of these nomadic clans do not allow the blood of a child to be slain, so Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano) becomes a fugitive, running from Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov). He is captured occasionally, builds up an army of his own, occasionally steals back his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun), and eventually leads a giant battle-changing leadership in Mongol territory.
One of the main problems with this film is that it is written like a documentary for the History Channel. This is fine for the most part, but when the film reaches for unearned and undeveloped emotional payoff, the audience is left in the dark. A couple chasing each other briefly on a hillside does not true love make. Aside from voiceovers telling the audience that people are in love and that betrayals have been made, there are no human interactions to lead us to those conclusions on our own. It leaves for a hollow and occasionally boring watch.
While the human element is completely ignored in this film, the attention to tribal custom is not. The film provides some interesting insights on marriage rites, power struggles, early laws, and codes of honour. It is also somewhat entertaining to see one man steal another man’s wife by lassoing her off of a horse and dragging her to his side. Sexist? Perhaps, but still amusing.
Where the film excels is in photography. Rogier Stoffers (Disturbia, Quille) and Sergei Trofimov (Night Watch Trilogy) have filled each shot with beauty and expertise. The landscapes and establishing shots are often jaw dropping. Sergei Bodrov does a fair job behind the camera from an aesthetic point of view. The battle sequences are impressive, bloody, well choreographed, and clearly benefit from solid direction. It is just unfortunate that he struggles with creating the same spark in the human interactions.
What is missing from this film is a European perspective. All of the flaws, slow motion photography, focus on size rather than detail, and inflated sense of self worth feel strangely North American. It appears that the success of the Night Watch trilogy on a global scale has caused cinematic modifications to be made for American consumption. It’s an unfortunate turn of events, but perhaps it will pay off for them.
Mongol is a film to watch solely for cinematography and impressive battle sequences. There is unfortunately not a lot else in the movie to recommend to anyone with an appreciation for intelligently crafted film. It’s well researched, but not particularly insightful or cathartic.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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