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Igor Vereshagin
I THINK I KHAN: Tadanobu Asano's Genghis Khan takes a battle break in 'Mongol.'

The Wrath Of Khan

Sergei Bodrov's 'Mongol' does not advance much beyond the Duke's version of Genghis Khan

By Richard von Busack

CONSIDERING the recent historical revision of Genghis Khan's reputation, one looked forward to Mongol, the first half of Sergei Bodrov's projected two-part epic about the master of a continent. What would we learn from the story of this much-maligned horseman, previously considered the epitome of barbarism and power-politics?

The West has some explaining to do. For instance, in 1932, MGM made The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff in yellow-face makeup in search of the fabled mask and scimitar of Genghis Khan, which would enslave all of Asia. And then there's the matter of John Wayne's The Conqueror, about which more in a minute.

Also, Mongol comes out in a film summer that hasn't been unveiling many vistas. Despite the hopes that Westerns would be revived by the success of 3:10 to Yuma, there aren't any this summer, unless you count the Aug. 7–8 revival of The Naked Spur and Broken Arrow at the Stanford Theatre. Whatever else goes wrong in Mongol, it does have real estate in it. The Kazakhstan and Mongolian landscapes are wide-open spaces lined with quaking aspens and coiled loops of rivers, shining in the approaching evening.

Unfortunately, the great man, properly named Temudjin (played in adulthood by Tadanobu Asano), only gets to the beginning of his career as khan of khans. The story of Mongol goes on as fearfully long as any self-made man's tale about how he got over, complete with every reversal of fortune and stretch in the wilderness. We learn of the great woman behind him: this in the form of the on-again, off-again (when she gets kidnapped) and back-on-again relationship with his child bride Börte (Khulan Chuluun).

The young Temudjin is an orphan, spared until he is tall enough to kill. ("Mongols don't kill women or children," we're reminded.) He is enslaved and later jailed. And then Temudjin survives a series of escapes from the warrior who is first his blood-brother and later his worst enemy. Until I looked it up, I was pretty certain this enemy was pronounced, Sopranos-wise, "Jamook." It's actually Jamukha, and he's played by Honglei Sun. His characterization of villainy consists of shaving off more hair whenever he's getting more serious about battling the Khan to be.

Supposedly, Mongol makes up for the insult against Genghis done by John Wayne in 1956's The Conqueror. Consider, though, that while Wayne sometimes played ambiguous men, he was accustomed to his life as the icon of the best we had in America. Casting him in the role of Genghis Khan was nobody's Occidental put-down.

Is Mongol the best place to draw a cultural battle line? Little that we see here transcends Wayne's idea that the best way to get Genghis onscreen was to make his story a Western. "The way the screenplay reads," Wayne said at the time, "it is a cowboy picture, and that is how I'm going to play Genghis Khan. I see him as a gunfighter."

This Temudjin is more like a Kevin Costner hero, though—a man of peace always forced into fights. And Bodrov shoots his film like a cowboy picture, not just in the high shots of grasslands under open or ominous skies, but in the steady contrast between wide horizons and extreme close-ups. As for the subtitled dialogue: "You call yourself khan? Shit is still shit!" I'm unconvinced that's better than the Duke's "I regret that I am without sufficient spittle to salute you as you deserve."

What you could hope for in Mongol is Sergei Parajanov–style ethnographia. That comes out in little doses. First is a quick ref, and thankfully no demonstration, of the torture called "the wooden donkey," for instance. See this and pick up the knowledge that the Mongols believed a man's center was his liver, not his heart.

We hear a fragrant proverb "You can't boil two rams' heads in one cauldron." We get a little nod to the importance of the totem animal. At different times, Temudjin visits a shrine where his wolf-god awaits. (The beast acts as both grief counselor and, apparently, locksmith; did it chew him out of his cangue?) One attack scene, with marauders on horseback masked with ghastly fur masks—they correspond to the Apaches in an old Western—has some startling ethnographic qualities to it.

But the battle sequences aren't breakthroughs, either. They look like the same kind of half-visible digital scrimmages as in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Each whack of the sword brings out red pixels for mortal wounds: shiny pale halos follow every drop, so you get not just the ketchup but the plastic bottle it's in, too. And the Saving Private Ryan battle-vision: slo-mo approach, with stunning speeded-up impact against body, has become a glazed cliché. After more than 10 years, this technique has arrived at the "We're doing it like that because we've always done it like that" stage of filmmaking.

As for the more fearsome aspect of Genghis' personality, that's avoided. This khan is a man pushed into greatness by birth and by the scheming of his enemies. He was charitable to those who obeyed him. I guess we'd all like that on our tombstones. And the film ends with a title card honoring Temudjin for not burning monasteries. I guess we'd all like that on our tombstones, too.

Movie Times MONGOL (R; 126 min.), directed by Sergei Bodrov, written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, photographed by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov and starring Tadanobu Asano, opens June 20.

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