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Genghis Khan: The Family Man

Directed and co-written by prolific Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (Nomad, Bear’s Kiss, Prisoner in the Mountains), Mongol is the first film in a planned trilogy that focuses on Genghis Khan, the Mongolian conqueror who, at one point, controlled more than a fifth of the Eurasian landmass. Nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, Mongol explores Genghis Khan’s early life, from his early childhood through his triumph over his Mongolian rivals, thus setting the stage for conquest beyond Mongolia’s borders. Focusing primarily on Genghis Khan’s personal relationships over military tactics or Khan’s charismatic leadership, Mongol still manages to deliver the epic scale and visual spectacle that a biopic about Genghis Khan warrants.

Mongol follows a nine-year old Genghis Khan, born Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren), as he accompanies his father, Esugei (Ba Sen), a minor leader (or khan), to select his wife from another tribe, the Merkits. At a rest stop, Temudjin meets Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), a girl one year older than Temudjin. Börte easily convinces Temudjin to pick her as his future bride (they’ll marry in five years). On their way back home, Esugei’s enemies poison him at a rest stop. Esugei’s rival, Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), becomes the new clan leader. Filled with hatred toward Esugei, Targutai spares Temudjin, but only because of his young age. Instead, he forces Temudjin into slavery but Temudjin escapes. A boy from a nearby tribe, Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar), saves Temudjin and they become friends and blood brothers.

As an adult, Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), pines for Börte (Khulan Chuluun), but his father’s old enemy, Targutai, still wants him dead. A reunion with Börte doesn’t last long: she’s kidnapped by the Merkits. Temudjin turns to Jamukha (Honglei Sun) for help. Aware of Temudjin’s leadership abilities, Jamukha wants Temudjin as his second-in-command. Their friendship frays when, after rescuing Börte, a handful of Jamukha’s men switches their allegiance to Temudjin after he offers them a larger share of the spoils. Temudjin and Jamukha’s friendship gives way to rivalry that, in turn, leads to open conflict between the two men, with Börte acting as Temudjin’s advisor and Targutai spurring Jamukha into confronting and defeating Temudjin before he becomes too powerful.

Even assuming the usual liberties filmmakers take with historical figures, there’s obviously little doubt about the outcome. Temudjin becomes the leader of the Mongols and, together, they conquer territory in East and Central Asia (his successors expanded his empire even further). Although Bodrov and his co-writer Arif Aliyev pack Mongol with the obligatory battle scenes, ranging from surprisingly small skirmishes to the climactic battle involving thousands of men on horses and on foot, the emphasis in Mongol is clearly on humanizing Temudjin through a heavy fictionalization of his early life and his deeply committed relationship with his wife (the first of many, but apparently a trusted lifelong advisor).

Bodrov and Aliyev also make Temudjin an honorable man, driven to curb the excesses of the Mongols, especially in the treatment of women and children through Börte whispering in his ear. Women and children are spared under the laws he promulgates as the leader of the Mongols (men, of course, aren’t spared). Although Temudjin’s excesses as a conqueror will be addressed in the sequel (or they should be), the version of Temudjin Bodrov and Aliyev offer a disturbingly positive portrait of a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Even then, Bodrov and Aliyev give Temudjin’s military prowess or charismatic leadership little time onscreen, often skipping months or years during which Temudjin acquired the allies and men necessary to eventually unite the Mongols under his rule.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars