The modern historical epic – ushered in stylistically during the early ‘90s by the likes of Dances with Wolves and Braveheart - has long been one of film’s least malleable sub-genres. Whether the action strictly adheres to history or bends it at will (more often the case), certain beats and rhythms persist across films, around the globe. Even the idiosyncratic, frenzied mash-ups favored in South Korea can’t overcome the traditional, lock-step approach to large-scale storytelling (see Musa and The King and the Clown for serviceable examples). That in mind, it comes as little surprise that the Russian / German / Mongolian / Kazakhstani co-producition of Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, an exciting and involving epic depicting the formative years of Genghis Khan, bears little cultural imprint beyond its narrative.
Oozing sweep and grandeur from every frame, the film follows Khan-to-be Temudgin (played primarily by Japanese golden boy Tadanobu Asano) through childhood to his quest to unite and bring order to the Mongolian people. Battle scenes appointed with digital geysers of blood temper the narrative, focused on Temudgin’s tumultuous relationship with his wife and adopted brother and their roles in his rise to power.
As a grand adventure, Mongol works in spite (or perhaps because) of its lack of innovation - it feels comfortable, lived-in. It's easy to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. If the film skirts with anything outside tradition, it’s when Temudgin calls on the spirit world for assistance (and rather miraculously receives it). Much is made of the Mongol god Tengri – represented as lightening strikes, He help Temudgin turn the tide in a key battle. It’s unclear whether Temudgin is simply ballsy enough to square off with the deity, or possesses a more pragmatic understanding of weather patterns. Regardless, this spiritual bent helps add an air of originality to the proceedings.
The film is gorgeous end-to-end, featuring lushly photographed landscapes from ice and snow to sand and sun. Design elements are strong, particularly the elaborate costuming and the detailed touches given to a massive city where Temudgin is held as a slave. Music cues offer appropriately ambitious accompaniment. Asano and the rest of the sprawling cast turn in solid work that never threatens to transcend the straight-forward material.
After much play on the festival circuit and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Picturehouse is rolling the film out across the US in a platform release. Despite an inability to escape the confines of its sub-genre, Mongol remains a finely crafted, entertaining spectacle laced with enough unique touches to warrant a look.