When we think of Genghis Khan here in the West, the initial association falls somewhere along the lines of early world conqueror and merciless warmonger. The foreign-language Oscar nominee "Mongol" does its part to soften the man's image -- even if it's not exactly accurate.
Directed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (who also wrote the script with Arif Aliyev), the film, the first in a planned trilogy, focuses on the leader's early years, presented in classic epic movie style with plenty of lush landscape shots and breathtaking battle sequences.
Our young hero Temudgin's childhood sets the stage for a lifetime of battle. He picks his bride at age 9, but is soon separated from her. He watches his father, the leader at the time, die. Everybody betrays him.
He spends an unspecified period with his upper body in wooden stocks. It occurs to him after some seasons to use the wood to beat the tar out of his guard and use his legs to run far away. Then he must find his bride.
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Few things are as important to the young warrior as the relationship he has with his must trusted ally, his wife Borte. She is kidnapped more than once, and his unwavering loyalty to her -- despite the fact that she bears children by other men who take advantage of her -- paints a sensitive and endearing portrait of the leader.
He is fair to his warriors and shares the wealth of plunder equally among them. Yet betrayals by his blood brother Jamukha (played with panache by Honglei Sun) lead to more bloodshed and Temudgin's eventual realization that strict law and order is the only way to govern and protect the future for his own children and the Mongolian people.
The movie goes all the way to the eve of his world conquest in 1206, when he actually becomes Genghis Khan, though it hops, skips and jumps through many decades in between.
With no over-the-top digital effects, the movie may remind you of "Braveheart." Odnyam Odsuren is excellent as the young Temudgin, navigating expertly through comical scenes of early courtship while sagely accepting responsibility for his family at age 9 when his father dies.
Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays our charismatic grown hero, and scenes between him and Sun are sharp and well acted.
"Mongol" is a romantic, violent film shot in some of the most beautiful and remote areas of Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia. The film spends two hours portraying the human side of Genghis Khan, which may be disappointing to some.
Perhaps the other two movies to come, which still have plenty of material to cover, will explain just how and when Khan got to be a little less nice.