“Mongol”

June 24th, 2008

Cross-posted with my LJ.  Mongol, the first installment of a Russian trilogy featuring Genghis Khan is currently playing in a single theater here in Manhattan.  Go here and here to see trailers, stills and more information.  The film is supposed to have a larger release here in the U.S.  It had terrific popular and critical reception in Europe.

The best parts:

–The locations, the vistas, the action, the people — none of them are digital.  This is all location and real people riding real horses.  It does look different, and so much better, I do say.

–The landscape, as one expects, has the leading role in Mongol.   You will not be disappointed.  Vistas of snow, of arid slopes, green rolling spring grass, doesn’t seem foreign to someone who grew up on the Great Plains, though, no we didn’t have mountains where I grew up.  But I did visit the Black Hills, which are really mountains, often on family summer vacations, and the Badlands, in both South Dakota and North Dakota.  The Missouri-Platt system meanders through parts of both these states on their way to the Mississippi, so I saw those too on summer vacations.  These are true vistas and landscapes, from my own life, and the lives of these characters in

Mongol.–The riders’ skill is as much a pleasure to look at as the vistas. Mongols ride like no one else who has not been almost literally born in the saddle. That’s not to say there are not other forms of good horsemanship, but there’s nothing like this one.  You probably saw this kind of riding with the Lakota tribes, for instance, when they achieved horses and horseback, and became powerful, post being kicked out of their eastern territories by more powerful tribes who had gotten weapons from the Europeans.  Indeed, there are so many commonalities among any hunter-herder-warrior, animist, nomadic culture, no matter what their continent of habitation, and you see all these commonalities in Mongol, including the shamanist practices.  The special pleasure of watching the riders’ skills is in the children who play the principals when they are young. The deep seat, the natural use of quirt and heel, all that shows someone literally brought up in the saddle.

–They drink, they sing, they laugh, they have fun, tell jokes.  Sometimes they are very funny.  The men getting drunk, singing in the Mongolian throat singing style, in the bonding celebration post a successful battle.  At times they sang horse neighing, other times belches and sounds less polite, while getting drunker and drunker. 

–The horseback attack with the double swords against a much larger mounted warrior line.  The warriors used those sabres like the chariots used razors on their wheel hubs to take out the competition in the Coliseum races in Ben Hur.  It was shot from inside the charge, and inside those the tactic was decimating (yes, I intend ‘decimate’ as it should be used), and it was shot from a ground distance, and from above. The viewer saw how a suicide cohort of those riders could devastate, then  break up  the charge of a much greater force of mounted warriors.  This was particularly interesting in that Saturday’s remedy for attempting to hide from the pain meant I’d been reading the section of Sherwood Smith’s King’s Shield in which mounted cohorts, fighiting from horseback play their essential role (goddessa, she writes these scenes so very well!).  Thus  I couldn’t help but layer this extensive filmic sequence on to Sherwood’s book, and vice versa.

Why I was disappointed:

– It was a lot more like what I saw of this conquerer’s bio on the History channel when I was in New Orleans than a real tale. The broken chronology was unnecessary, and unintentionally dislocating — when it must have been intended to be just the opposite, to make the audience feel at home in the sequences of GK’s life arc.  The film did not achieve a connected and developed narrative, i.e. a story, much less developed characters.  Things happen, and unless you are capable of reading between the lines because of what you already know about the history and / or mythology of Genghis Khan, you really wonder how we get from here to there.  You will wonder anyway.  There are many versions of his story out there.  This one was rather different than any I’d seen before, in terms of his relationships, at least.  Nor have I ever read that he was a slave exhibit in a far off northern city, though yes, he was enslaved by enemies as a child, when his father was killed.

– It’s ‘impressionist’ some might say.   But I wanted more real world connection.  For instance, he’s always got the right clothes to wear, blankets, etc.  Where did they come from?  How did Borte get so rich?  Etc.  Not having any sense of these very practical matters intruded deeply, in this world protrayed on screen as real.

If characters’ motivation and relationships go missing at the beginning, the missing bits create ever larger story gaps, and that will spin off additional problems as the work progresses — a cascade effect of creative troubles.  This is even more so if you began with unnecesary chronological dislocation. This movie is much worth looking at, though you have seen all this in other movies. But it isn’t that good in terms of what matters most to me, and what matters most to me is not battle scenes, though one needs them in this movie, and I certainly want them to be good. And the battled scene are good cinema.  They are better than the story that is told.

The moral we take with us, good ladies and gentlemen, is that action by itself, battle scenes alone, are not enough to make a thorougly satisfying work of entertainment.

That is, anyway, if you are me.  (Are we confused yet?)

 

14 Responses to ““Mongol””

  1. Foz Meadowson 24 Jun 2008 at 6:51 pm

    I agree – my husband and I saw Mongol on the weekend, and though it looked very beautiful, we agreed that the narrative structure was, well, not so much. The plot jumps backwards, forwards, then back to a different point in time: the opening framing device of Temudgin in prison doesn’t seem to have a point, as it’s not the pivotal moment of the film, nor does it end up a meaningful callback to some earlier device.

    My husband’s particular comment was that, for most of the film, it looks like a revenge narrative is being set up. Temudgin gets told about seven times that he needs to kill his rival, but that never happens; we have no closure for earlier events. The dislocation of narrative is always going to be a problem with biopics, because real lives aren’t usually cathartic or structured – but this version of events seems largely to have been the invention of the director, and therefore suffers from problems of its own making, rather than from the necessity of trying to tell a true tale.

    And, yeah, what the – howq *did* Borte get so rich? And where did her other husband-dude go, you know, the one who presumably fathered Mongen and gave her all the money? Weird.

  2. Constance Ashon 24 Jun 2008 at 6:58 pm

    Kate Elliott, who knows far more about Temudgin than many of us, assured my suspicion that the entire episode of him being imprisoned in that city of that northern kingdom never happened, much less that irrelevant Buddhist monk death trek vision.

    I cannot recall the name of that kingdom where GK was imprisoned as a ‘mongol exhibit’, that GK supposedly destroys in the future — but how many cities does GK destroy anyway that are no longer remembered? The name began with T — and it drives me crazy that I can’t recall the name and thus look it up. So many names in this tale begin with T ….

    Love, C.

  3. Carolon 24 Jun 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Hi Constance,
    so funny you posted this about Mongol…I haven’t seen it yet, it’s come out whiloe I am in Hanoi for work, so I havent read your review yet. I worked a year living in Mongolia, so I am very keen to see the film. I’ll ask my Mongolian friends what they think and let you know, once I’ve seen the film!

  4. Constance Ashon 24 Jun 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Carol — That’s so exciting, what you are doing. You’re going to tell us about it upon return, right? Every time I’ve had the privilege of spending time in cultures so much not my own has split the world wide open.

    Kate has been illuminating many aspects in the discussion at my LJ. Others don’t agree with us, necessarily either, thinking this was a perfectly acceptable first installment to a trilogy.

    But what most interests me about this film project is that it isn’t about US, or anyone other than the Russias and Central Asia, according to the director. It’s about revising the image of Genghis Khan, to make him a unifying figure of all of the Russias and Central Asia. So there is a deep political-geographical-cultural aspect to this as well.

    Though this is supposedly a bio pic, like any movie bio pic, um, liberties were grabbed.

    Love, C.

  5. Kate Elliotton 26 Jun 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Carol, I’d be very interested to hear what your Mongolian friends say. Boy, would I love to live in Mongolia for a year . . . must see if spouse can get temporary job teaching Mesoamerican archaeology at university in Ulaan Bator . . . hmmm. . .

    Mongol opens here this weekend, but it will be Sunday at least before I could hope to go. Would have loved to go with Spouse before he heads out again on Saturday. oh well.

    I don’t get why the filmmakers needed to “motivate” Temujin in such an awkward way (captivity and revenge, eh). Since when did old fashioned megalomania cease to be good enough? It isn’t enough that he got started conquering and didn’t feel like stopping??? *wry g*

  6. Carolon 26 Jun 2008 at 9:02 pm

    I just emailed my Mongolian friend Yansan (not a Mongolian name though, his parents gavce him a tibetan name). It will probably take him a while to respond, but I will let you know.

    Mongolia was an awesome place to live. Ulaan baatar is not very nice (grey russian style concrete city) but the country side was amazing, as were the people. When my hubby came out to live with me (he was still finishing his degree when I went out) it was winter so I had no field work and was working in the office. Poor Shawn was kinda stuck in the apartment coz of the minus 30 C weather and found it hard to get work. My work sent us to Oz during the cold cold winter where he picked up work and stayed, when I went back to Mongolia…but I didnt renew the contract which is why I left. It would be amazing place to go…I recomend it highly, esp in summer! I love the tibetan buddhism that is everywhere. Never have I felt my spirit so free, as in Hurengol, in the Altai mountains.

    Anyway, back to Mongol…I want to see it tomorrow night, hopefully its still on in Perth! Then I’ll let you know my perspective.

  7. Kate Elliotton 30 Jun 2008 at 1:00 am

    Here’s the “review” I posted on my livejournal:

    Mongol: The Movie

    Or:

    When you have a perfectly awesome real story, why not totally mess it up with completely idiotic plot elements and unrealistic made up shit?

    Wow. Did I hate this film, or what?

    And I kept thinking: why why why? How could anyone possibly think the bogus plot was somehow necessary to make the story work as a film?

    Let me just throw out a few points:

    1)
    In a harsh environment mothers typically tell their nine year old sons to “save yourself” and then not see them again for, oh, I dunno, YEARS. Oh god. This is especially aggravating when one of the key elements of Temujin (Genghis Khan’s) ACTUAL story is how his mother raised him and his brothers and sister and half brothers after the death of her husband. She was one tough woman. But perhaps they did not want to include the episode where he kills one of his half brothers while still a child.

    2)
    This weird idea of endless captivities and solo suffering (no, he was never held prisoner in a city; wtf) as the motivator and impetus for All That Comes After is so very bizarre that I genuinely don’t understand it. Yes, Temujin was captured one time by another tribe, and not evidently for very long, and when he was by then a youth (no longer a child, not yet quite a man). It matters in his history mostly because the family that helps him escape later is rewarded when he becomes great khan; also, the episode shows how he thinks even as a youth and how he uses his observation of people’s behavior and his own persuasive powers to get people to help him.

    To me, the way the film devised the plot of endless captivity trivialized the process of complex hostilities and alliances that existed in these inter-related tribes, and the way the size of the local armies of various chiefs and khans diminishes or expands according to their fortunes and successes (or losses) and their other alliances.

    3)
    Two swords on horseback suicide charge? I don’t think so, Tim.

    It’s late, fortunately for you, or I would go on at length on how much they got wrong.

    What was good? landscape: beautiful. details of daily life: cool, but in the background. great faces.

    Otherwise, mind-bogglingly dumb plot set atop a choppy narrative.

    Oh, the disappointment.

  8. Carolon 30 Jun 2008 at 5:13 am

    Finally saw Mongol!
    And I have to agree with the above comments. I don’t know why they had to change history so much, I would love to have seen more about how he raised his armies and then conquered half the world. All this made up stuff, and no actual telling of the important parst of history. Disappointing.
    I asked Yansan what he thought and he said the same…”great if you look at it just as a movie, but historically not si good”. (I won’t use his actual words!!)

    I did love the scenery and glimspes of everyday life, and those parts reminded me of the Mongolia I lived in, the small things such as the gers they lived in (it annoyed me they called them yurts in the englisg translation, I have always known them as gers), their love of horses and the importance they play in the daily lives of Mongolians (still today, in rural Mongolia they are the main form of transport, and I never met one single Mongolian who could not ride), and their love of meat!

    So there were good parts, just not the plot. It could have been much better!

  9. Constance Ashon 30 Jun 2008 at 2:01 pm

    It seems as so far viewers of our ilk tend to agree about the film.

    Except for a couple of dear amigos on my LJ — they weren’t bothered by what has sorely disappointed us.

    Love, C.

  10. Kate Elliotton 30 Jun 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Carol, have you seen the film “Close to Eden”? I really liked it.

    Also – Carol, I loved your review. You could have complained MORE and I would have loved that, too! I watched for the background stuff, which I liked.

    I’m realizing – and will likely post about – the thing that bugged me most about the Mongol movie, which is the old canard that indigenous people can’t do things of their own volition; there must be an outside impetus (he attacks the Tanguts because he was caged there; hearing how ‘civilized’ people describe the Mongols as dogs and thieves decides him on creating the laws for which the empire was famous). Just like the business with people who think aliens or refugees from Egypt must have shown the Maya how to build pyramids.

  11. Cindyon 01 Jul 2008 at 10:55 pm

    One question, where can I see it besides NY and LA? I hope I don’t have to wait for it on video, because that would be a shame I think.

  12. Kate Elliotton 02 Jul 2008 at 2:54 am

    Cindy, it’s also playing in Honolulu, but I’m not sure that’s helpful.

  13. Person from Mongoliaon 20 Oct 2008 at 1:22 am

    Well,
    As a real Mongolian, I thought the film was TOTALLY MISLEADING. The history itself of the film is NOT TRUE. I don’t understand why they had to change that but it was not a good movie for those real Mongolian people and I don’t get why people like it so much when it is not saying anything about the REAL HISTORY. My thinking is that people really shouldn’t portray the history of Chinghis Khan (note its not Genghis Khan), as in the movie but RATHER GO FIND A REAL HISTORICAL BOOK translated to whatever language.

    Anyways, let’s not make our brains invade this history as TRUE!!!

  14. lilysageon 28 Apr 2009 at 7:14 pm

    I just stumbled across this while I was looking for historical and cultural critiques of the film. I left Mongolia a week or two before the film came out, saw it in the U.S., and wondered how it would be received internationally (and particularly in Mongolia.) Beyond the historical critiques that I’ve read here (and in the UB post) I wonder: why did the director refuse to enlist any Mongolians for the purposes of making this film?

    The quality of narrative, historical accuracy, language, and general authenticity all could have been improved very easily, if the director consulted/employed Mongolian script editors, actors, (or filmed it in Mongolia…) etc. At least he could have done some more than superficial research into the life of Chinggis. Like, maybe reading Weatherford’s “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” and adhering to the “Secret History.”

    From those I’ve heard from, Mongolians are pissed.

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