This is certainly the first Kazakh film I’ve ever seen, but it’s parentage is pretty complicated, as it a German-Kazakh-Mongolian-Russian film, filmed largely in Mongolia and China and directed and co-written by a Russian, Sergei Bodrov. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, and while I liked it a tick better than the winner, The Counterfeiters, it is vastly inferior to the snubbed Four Months, Three Weeks, and 2 Days.
Simply put, it is the story of the young Genghis Khan. For Westerners like me, who knew nothing about him, you’ll learn a lot, such as that Genghis Khan is not a name but a title (something like supreme ruler). As a boy he was called Temudgin, and was the son of a Khan of a small clan. When he was nine his father took him out to find a bride, and after picking out his favorite, who would be the love of his life, his father gets poisoned by enemies, leaving the young fellow at the mercy of his father’s rivals.
Over the next several years, he endures lots of tough times, being enslaved and imprisoned and falling in and out contact with Borte, his beautiful wife. Eventually he perserveres and defeats his enemies, and is poised to rule an empire that would encompass almost all of Asia. This is the first film in a projected trilogy, so I guess we’ll see that in the sequels.
The film is a somewhat quaint biographical epic that reminds one of Cecil B. DeMille (not David Lean–his stuff was far better). It has the sweep of DeMille, with hundreds of extras, but also the ham-fisted dialogue (early on we get the old chestnut, “I didn’t know that this day would change my life.”) We also get lots of battle scenes, with more blood than DeMille, in glorious arterial sprays, but also lots of shots of warriors falling off horses in slow motion.
There are also a lot of gaps in the story. I appreciate that Bodrov didn’t make this movie longer than it is, but there are some jumps that hurt the film. At one point Khan is at his lowest, in a jail cell. He escapes, and the next thing you know he has a huge army that is explained in one line of voiceover. Also, in the climactic battle he is outnumbered by his opponent, but says he will win through strategy. Unless he has contact with an early form of The Weather Channel, we never find out what that strategy is.
The heart of what is wrong with this film is the script. It plays like a History Channel documentary, without much shading. The most interesting character, and the best acted, is Khan’s blood brother, Sun Hong Lei, who gives an intriguing performance. Otherwise, it’s just hero is captured, hero escapes, hero builds army, and that goes through a few gyrations. I wonder if Shakespeare knew this story–he would have done something interesting with it.