Encompassing shifting tribal alliances, a love story for the ages and a sworn friendship transformed into enmity, “Mongol” traces the formative years of legendary warrior Genghis Khan. Spanning his life from age 9 in 1172 through 1206, when the feuding nomadic clans united under his leadership, this Central Asia-set historical epic from Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov (“Nomad”) boasts breathtaking landscapes, dazzling cinematography, bloody battles and unique traditions. The beautifully mounted actioner, the first entry in a proposed trilogy, should conquer auds in the khan’s former territories and, with savvy marketing, may also draw new blood to the film when Picturehouse releases it Stateside next year.
Shot on locations in Kazakhstan and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, pic captures the nomadic lifestyle of the 12th century and the harsh climate and varying terrain of the Mongolian steppe, a place where a man’s not a man without a horse. It also introduces a strong, resourceful female character: Borte, first wife and lifelong adviser to the man born as Temudgin.
Opening in 1192, during one of many periods of captivity Temudgin suffered, the story flashes back 20 years to show him as a lad (Odnyam Odsuren) with his father Esugei (Ba Sen), a tribal leader. On the way to choose a bride from the fierce Merkit clan, the boy finds heart captured by spirited Borte (Bayartsetseg Erdenabat), and he selects her instead.
It’s a choice that changes Temudgin’s life forever. On the way home, his father is poisoned, and as soon as the funeral rites are complete, resentful follower Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) seizes power — and the property of Temudgin’s family.
Tradition prevents Targutai from spilling the boy’s blood until he’s grown, so Temudgin becomes a fugitive. Alone on the snow-covered steppe, he meets tribal prince Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvinbayar), and the two become blood brothers.
Eventually, Temudgin is captured and escapes. When he’s captured again in 1186, he’s grown into a strong, defiant man (Tadanobu Asano).
After another escape, Temudgin obtains a horse and sets off to claim Borte (Khulan Chuluun). Their brief, tender idyll is interrupted by vengeance-seeking Merkits who kidnap Borte. With the help of blood brother Jamukha (Honglei Sun), Temudgin rescues Borte, but later, the blood brothers fall out and eventually end up at war with each other.
Perfs by the multiethnic leads mesh well. Japanese indie idol Asano smolders as maverick Temudgin, charismatic Chinese thesp Sun brings some welcome humor to the role of Jamukha, and Mongolian non-pro Chuluun makes an adroit Borte. They’re nicely supported by a roster of Mongolian thesps in bit parts and an accomplished group of Kazakh and Kyrgyz stunt riders.
Vivid lensing by Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers lends needed momentum to the sprawling tale, particularly during the horse-mounted chases and battle sequences.
Spectacular production design by artist Dashi Namdakov and handsome folkloric costumes by Karin Lohr keep the pic easy on the eyes. Lush score by Tuomas Kantelinen is hauntingly supplemented with the ethno-folk stylings of Mongolian band Altan Urgan.
According to the press notes, pic was conceived as the first of three films designed to cover the entire lifetime of Genghis Khan. Opening credits on print caught in Toronto indicated title as “Mongol, Part 1.”