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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Mongol

09.24.2015

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at MONGOL.

THE STORY: Witness the legend of Genghis Khan as it was born from the harsh trials, violent conflicts, and enduring love that defined the life of a young man named Temüjin.

THE PLAYERS: Co-writer/drector Sergei Bodrov. Co-writer Arief Aliev. Actors Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun. Composer Tuomas Kantelinen. Cinematographers Rogier Stoffers (DISTURBIA, QUILLS) and Sergey Trofimov (NIGHT WATCH, DAY WATCH).

THE HISTORY: Genghis Khan. Ruler of the second largest empire history has thus far seen and, since 1950, a fair star of the silver screen. MONGOL marks the 10th feature film to be made about his life, and was far and away the largest production yet to attempt to translate his legend into the language of cinema. Filmed in China and Kazakhistan (they tried for Mongolia proper, but many people protested the filming in fear it couldn't possibly do justice to his character and story), with a cast of extras and horses that numbered in the thousands and an international crew of 600+ people, it was still effectively an independant production with cobbled-together funding that amounted to a budget of about $18 million all-told. Still, according to Bodrov, "the only thing to compare with the scale of it was War and Peace [the eight-hour epic shot in 1967] which was made with the state support of the army." 

The shoot lasted 25 weeks (on and off), premiering in 2007 and serving as Kazakhistan's entry for the 80th Academy Awards (where NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would go on to win Best Picture) where it did end up being nominated (but lost to Austria's entry THE COUNTERFEITERS). In its smallest domestic release it played in 5 cinemas, its largest a little over 250. By the time it closed out its run in early fall of 2008, MONGOL had grossed nearly $6 million domestically and $20 million internationally - enough to make back the budget plus a little extra for everyone invovled, but not enough to make a sequel of this scope and scale an easy greenlight. Earlier this year Bodrov seemed to confirm that pieces were again moving into place, though it sounds like his original intention of a trilogy may have been reduced to a duology for the sake of actually getting made: "I’m already working on it with my Chinese colleagues. I regularly go to China. The screenplay has already been written; it’s about the last year of Genghis Khan’s life. His last wife, his last battle, the fate of the empire. It’s a little like King Lear."

[Historians with whom Bodrov argued] said things like 'He couldn't have spent all those years in a cage... It's not in the sources.' But I said, 'Your sources are missing pieces. Tell me how he spent those years. You don't know. It's possible that it could have happened.' We could argue forever about it... [but] when the movie was finished, the same historians came to me and said, 'You were right. Because for the first time, we can see Khan as a human being.' - Bodrov, on historical liberties

WHY IT'S GREAT: The dual opportunity and the challenge of adapting the life of someone such as Genghis Khan – someone who exists squarely in the misty intersection between history and legend – is that subsequent reports about his life and reign are based on a great deal of folk memory and very few concrete sources from those close to him and his lifetime. And like the memories of all conquerors, those we have of him, those that became the tales passed down about who he was and why he was driven to do all that he did, they are of course coloured by which side of his sword you and your family were on. For as co-writer and director Sergei Bodrov’s fellow Russians, Genghis Khan is remembered as a barbarian without mercy who subjugated and enslaved their ancestors. This is what they’re taught from an early age. But when Bodrov read a book called The Legend of the Black Arrow, he learned about Genghis Khan’s early life. He began to question, to create, to explore how and why this man might have become someone that is viewed as a hero by many in northern Asia. He began to build how the boy Temüjin, molded by the death of his father and the harsh existence and rituals of the 12th and 13th centuries, might have become the greatest Khan of them all.

And that’s the first and most important way in which this biopic distinguishes itself from so many others, whether the subject be ancient (ALEXANDER) or recent (LINCOLN): it fully embraces the fact that in retelling this story for the screen, it is crafting a legend. Yes, it takes great pains to capture the Steppe culture, the clothes and the combat and the diet and the relationship with horses and all that. But the film’s first and last function is to mythologize this man, to build him up circumstance by circumstance until he truly is the giant whose shadow still throws itself across history. Which, in a way, is much what we may imagine Temujin himself might have endeavored to do. From a screenwriting perspective, when it comes to adapting a life certain questions always rear their immortal heads: what to include, what to leave out, and what to invent. When it comes to a life like this one, when the majority of the material is already built on memory and supposition, to fully embrace the legendary is a bold choice. But it is one which defines MONGOL, in all its beauty, pathos, and impact. We as the audience are invited to view, to witness, to wonder, to cheer, to hold our breath in fear… and finally, in the end (or is the beginning?) to believe.

I had to face with plenty of new things: speaking Mongolian, riding horses… learning horseback riding was particularly tough since I hadn’t done it at all before.  My butt was skinned, actually.  That was indescribably painful.... [swordplay] was also tough.  We had two separate principal photography periods that each lasted two months.  In the first period, which was from fall to winter, we had a Korean action director.  He taught us Korean-style fighting steps, which were completely different from the Japanese style.  When I happened to take Japanese steps, he got really mad at me.  I had trouble working with him.  Anticipating that I would have to work with him in the next shooting period, I secretly practiced Korean-style steps, but he did not show up on the set.  Instead of him, we had action directors from Kazakhstan.  I got along very well with them.  They were a big help to me." - Tadanobu Asano, on preparing to play Temudgin

As for why this works? For one, we can look at the film’s engagingly specific relationship with time and how it allows us to watch the main character mould himself into the man he will become. When we first meet Temüjin he has been jailed, his spirit haggard, his face worn - but his will still iron-strong. He sits in prison for years, using the time to dig deep into the traumas, joys, and adventures of his past in order to construct a lens through which he’ll see his friends, his family, his foes, and his land all the more clearly and keenly. Every flashback we watch becomes another brick in the self he is rebuilding, the perspective that drives him upon escape to conquer his known world forged right before our eyes. Meaning in turn that every flashback serves a character-specific purpose, as opposed to the writer/director playing puppet master with the narrative for their own ends.

There’s actually a perfect scene that illustrates the almost-meta blend between the film itself construction a mythology and Temüjin himself willfully participating in that same construction – as a boy he is on the run, escaping from those who (rightfully) fear what the son of a murdered Khan would do if he were free. His hands and head are locked in wooden stocks, the two halves of wood chained together. Thus driven, thus imprisoned, he braves the danger and his doubt to ascend the mountain sacred to his people. There he falls to his knees in the snow, exhausted. Because his eyes are closed he can’t see that watches and paces, waiting for him to do. He can’t see how the wolf’s energy changes, how the look in its eye shifts, how the hunger in its heart transforms. Since the screen fades to black, we can’t see what happens next. Or, rather, we can’t see how. But in retrospect, we can feel – we can believe – that it doesn’t matter.

When the screen fades back to picture the chains are broken, the stocks are fallen, and the Khan’s son is free. And looking on this in retrospect, trapped as he is in his cold and dirty cell, the man who will soon become Genghis Khan begins to believe too.

... we decided, for obvious reasons, to fully embrace the ethnic tradition of Mongolia, but in a cinematic sense. It was pretty exciting as I had a big orchestra in front of me, as well as Mongolian throat singers and players of traditional instruments. We would play from scores, but also do a sort of improvisation based on melodies that I would sing and then have the different elements come together in one piece. For ‘Mongol', I ended up recording in Moscow, London and Hamburg so it was a real journey in itself. Sergei was very hands-on, we sat for hours and hours looking at the movie, listening to cues and just talking. I tend to be very chatty on coffee breaks, and Sergei is more of a silent, peaceful person - he was just listening to my philosophical ramblings, smiling and reminding me to keep it simple, keep everything in proportion - small and subtle music when it's a small scene, huge and epic when a big battle unfolds. - composer Tuomas Kantelinen

A direction’s intentions and design, however, can only take their vision so far. Thankfully, Bodrov assembled a cast and crew well capable of carrying that vision to fruition. Using Chinese and Iranian art as inspiration, cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov (the second brought on when the first was unable to return) blend their work seamlessly. They were able capture the wild splendor of Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia, turning it into a character of its own, while still making it so that all we see is Temüjin's adventure. Theirs is beautiful work that complements the narrative and all its emotional upheavals without ever stealing the stage, while serving the bonus purpose of giving us a striking insight into the landscape of Temujin’s inner life as shaped by what he would have witnessed.

A great film always has multiple landscapes in play, tectonic plates that shift and vie for control of our viewing experience. But there are rare occasions when character, surrounding environment, inner life, and staging all work together to craft a new world. And on those occasions, I’ve found there is often another landscape, one overlaid the world we see, something that transcends its known identity and takes on a vibrant life of its own that cannot be seen but will be felt. And that is the score. Tuomas Kantelinen, a Finnish composer with a wide range of credits, worked with Mongolian folk-rock band Altan Urag to produce something at once traditional and ancient, mythical and driving, unique and alive. When watching MONGOL, the score becomes one which bridges what we see with what we feel. It speaks the sounds of the world, the people in it, and the actions they take, putting potentially unfamiliar traditions and perspectives into a language that we understand on a level deeper than words. It is an indispensible part of the film’s final effect, cohering every other element into the greatest of wholes (check out the opening track here).

When I went to scout and see the locations, everything was breathtaking. I liked the space and the scope and the locations helped to drive the story because when you see this huge place, it immediately sparks the beginning of a story. We have been living in this world for thousands of years and the complexities of man and space are very interesting—survival alone is interesting. My story is about a boy who was a slave and an orphan and how he survived. What is interesting about Mongols is how they relate to nature. They believe in many gods and spirits that relate to the Earth. I think it was very important for the movie to be in places like China and Mongolia. It is all the places Mongolians used to live in and they are still present there; you can see the ancient graves in sacred places. My crew and I would go to these places and observe ceremonies taking place around sacred sites. - Sergei Bodrov

The last piece necessary in bringing Bodrov's vision to life is the acting, and here too MONGOL does nothing but excel. Tadaonobu Asano, tasked with playing the transformation of Temüjin to Genghis Khan, plays that transformation with an inspiringly assured handle on the complexities of a human being's inner life. On the surface a warrior of primal passions, the deep sea of feeling we often glimpse swimming beneath is bursting with tenderness, love, hurt, anger, fear, doubt, and truth. It is true that with biopics there can be real skill in impersonation, and even more in recreation. But going back to something I said earlier, Asano's performance not only realizes a fully fledged human being; he makes us believe in who that human being becomes. Watch closely and you'll see every step, every fall, every beat of change that make a man. And then sit back as you watch him become something so much more.

Nor is he alone in this. Newcomer Khulan Chuluun has a conviction and honesty in her performance that convinces us she of all people might have inspired even Genghis Khan himself to hold on to his humanity, while Honglei Sun (playing Temüjin's blood brother Jamukha) absolutely sells his own transformation from believer to rival. The film asks him to be the human face to the cost of Temüjin's actions and ascent, and the wounding in his eyes when Temüjin turns away brings a much-needed dissenting edge to the romance of this film's portrayal of Genghis Khan's legend.

And yes, it is a romance. Not just in the sense that Bodrov latched much of his film onto the central axis of Temüjin's enduring love for Börte, but in how the narrative uses the nebulous nature of historical truth (if there even is such a thing) as a springboard to tell the sweeping sort of story it wants to tell. This is fiction that has as much chance of being true as anything else, a dream of how one human being might be inspired to make an empire.

And what a dream it is.

I wanted to be in the army, to study in a military school... But I couldn't get into the military school. ... It was pure chance that I became an actress.... The film is about Mongolia, about Genghis Khan. And he is like God in Mongolia.. I was approached by (a casting agent). She asked me if I was Mongolian. I said yes. It all happened by chance... It was a difficult role. But the easiest thing was riding a horse. We all know how to do that in Mongolia. - Khulan Chuluun

BEST SCENE:

For one scene that encapsulates so much of what makes this movie stand out - the cinematography, the score, the acting, the action - I didn't even talk about the action above, but each set piece is unique in staging and execution (so to speak) - look no further than the raid Temüjin and Jamukha conduct on the rival Merkit clan.

SEE IT:

You can buy MONGOL on Blu-Ray + DVD HERE!

PARTING SHOT: 

Some historians didn't like this idea... but it's a great challenge for the hero. Sitting there encrusted by time, in this cage, he can go mad, or he can achieve the opposite.  - Bodrov

Extra Tidbit: At one point, Bodrov met with Channing Tatum for the lead role. "At that time, he hadn't decided he was going to use an Asian actor because Genghis Khan is rumoured to have had freckles and green eyes and red hair, because he was more from northern Mongolia. Back in the day, the Mongolians didn't have the dark features they have today... He (Bodrov) gave me a book on him (Genghis Khan) and I've been obsessed with him since then."
Source: JoBlo

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