Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Segei Bodrov's "artistic" epic "Mongol"

"Mongol" is marketed as a must see epic “art” film (apparently platformed starting with New York and LA but now in most cities), directed by Sergei Bodrov (written by him with Arik Aliyev). It is part spectacle, part “Russian western” or perhaps “Eastern.” And the spectacle is muted by the plainness as squalor of much of everyday life on the treeless, often gray-brown steppes (in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan), constantly swept by lightning storms, with landscapes sweeping enough in full 2.35: 1 anamorphic photography. The overall visual effect, however, because of the modest living circumstances, seems very down-to-earth compared to what Fox and MGM got us accustomed to with the “historical spectacle” genre of the 50s and 60s. The original music by Tuomas Kantelinen, sometimes ethnic and sometimes symphonic with lots of Russian minor keys, never sounds a bit like Alexander Borodin’s famous tone poem. The film, in Mongol with subtitles, is distributed by New Line’s “boutique brand” Picturehouse Entertainment, which also often handles the theatrical releases for HBO.

We all know that this is the story of the “jeunesse” of Genghis Khan, how be became a famous warrior that would conquer much of Asia in the 13th Century. And we know that it hits on his character and personal courage in family and tribal matters, rather than in “politics” which hardly existed then in that part of the world was we know them today (or maybe they did; schools have beefed up world history in recent years). As a young man, he is known as Temudgin (Japanese actor Tadanabo Asano) As the movie starts, he, as nine year old (Odnyam Odsuren, is coached by his father in picking out a future bride, from the Merkit clan. Marriage (and subsequent children) was a tool in that society for healing tribal rifts, just as it would become in western Europe (as in Columbia’s “Marie Antoinette”). But Temudgin is distracted and “confused” by a girl Borte (Bavertsetseg Erdenebat as a child, Khulan Chuluun as an adult) from a smaller tribe. She, even as a kid, tells him he should pick her. In this culture, this was accepted practice. Eventually they marry, and she will save his life more than once.

The movie has lots of other raw visual images, such as a wooden yoke, a curious and menacing wolf, and interesting if subdue costumes and interiors of tent homes. The moral values of the culture come out, especially protecting the families of warriors already slain. Eventually there is a need for a legal code, which would be “simple” (even compared to the Ten Commandments). The movie opens with a saying that a small cub can still grow up to become a ferocious tiger.

Near the end, there is one of these massive battle scenes with fronts of warriors, engaged old fashioned style, before modern asymmetry. There is plenty of saber induced mayhem to account for the R rating.

Bodrov's epic film does nudge us to ponder the "moral ambiguities" of tribal values, emphasizing the stability of the tribe over the rights and choices of the individual, yet cherishing choice in certain circumstances. Their values may be necessary for survival in a harsh environment and can inspire personal virtue, yet lead to horrific wrongs on a larger political and social scale.

At the end, the movie tells us that a major monastery, shown in the last frame, survives.

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