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  • Feature: Mongol director Sergei Bodrov

    Tue, 10 Jun 2008 10:05:11

    Director Sergei Bodrov is nothing if not audacious. Tackling a story of such grandeur as that of Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano), the Mongolian conquerer known for forging a bloodied empirical reign, requires meticulous research and an almost foolhardy degree of confidence. Bodrov communicates his spirited investment in the subject matter in his sweeping biopic—simply titled Mongol—with every composed frame, every choreographed epic battle, though the splashy latter scenes are not the immediate focus of the film. Khan the myth and Khan the mortal are not mutually exclusive characters, as the director sets out to prove by establishing a continuum between Khan’s formative childhood years and the historically notable foundation of the Mongolian Empire. Bodrov portrays Khan as less of a maniacal tyrant and more of a self-assured visionary, a man whose rise to power was not the product of legacy or happenstance, but personal evolution over the course of several decades.

    The process of translating Khan’s story to screen involved consulting myriad sources, all of which contributed to constructing the cinematic pastiche that is Mongol. As Bodrov explains, presenting the biography as objective fact, or maintaining fidelity to a specific academic source was not his primary goal. “Of course I consulted sources and historians, [but] it’s all sometimes very personal. This time, we really didn’t know so much. Few books [about Khan] were recently published, with different takes, different views about this man.”

    With conflicting, and often highly debated accounts of Khan’s life available for review, Bodrov chose a unique and more granulated approach—focusing upon the ruler’s early years, specifically the events which informed his courageous and violent transformation. Says Bodrov, “I started to look at different sources and I found some pieces of the puzzle. It was really important for me to understand his character. Some sources, like one Mongolian source, was found only 150 years ago, and was a poem, but you can find some little stories about his early life. I was just thinking about [crafting] a story. [His early years] were a strong period that made him Genghis Khan.”

    It was during his youth that Khan, born Temudgin, chose as a wife and subsequently fell in love with a girl named Borte (played as an adult by Khulan Chuluun), who would serve as an emotional brace as he clashed with enemy tribes. The partnership was just that, a meeting of equals rather than a reflection of gendered hierarchy. This romance is a critical focus of the film, lending an unexpected, sympathetic tenderness to Khan’s person and demonstrating an alternate representation of women. “This is a great love story, which is unusual for a lot of people,” says Bodrov, “She’s very strong. Mongolians used to fight and they were away from their home for years. She was a great character, ready to do anything for him, and she was open-minded.”

    While supportive forces such as Borte contribute to illustrating the layers of Khan’s story, so, too, do the movie’s opulent visuals. The Mongolian landscape is an ancillary character in and of itself, with the camera tracking across steppes, mountains, and the physical environment which Mongols had to contend with in their conquest for tribal domination. Bodrov’s film has been lauded for its vivid cinematography, particularly its battle scenes, which were augmented by light use of CGI. “I didn’t use so much CGI. With all of my action stuff, for example—when you need to see an army of 20,000 people, you need to use CGI. I think I was going after an old-fashioned look. You see reality on screen.” It is a reality that melds crisp, cherry red bursts of blood with a virtually tactile panorama, like optical candy.

    Bodrov is candid when speaking about Mongol, hesitating not a moment when discussing why he made particular filmic choices and possessing a confidence about the work he crafted. Bodrov was not phased by the prospect of telling the definitive Genghis Khan story, but concerned with telling an honest story, period. “I love to tell good stories. It could be a huge movie, it could be a historical movie. I’m looking at different projects all of the time. But this project was not huge for me. I found it a comfort to do,” he says. A comfort to create, a bit unsettling to watch, but ultimately, a compelling portrayal of a man whose gravitas precedes his humanity. In some small way, Bodrov's film reverses this dominant view.

    —Heidi Atwal

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