Opening in the Year of the Black Rat, Mongol flashes back to the Year of the Fire Horse and then proceeds to the Year of the Red Dragon. With us so far? Probably not. Fortunately you don’t need to be au fait with the Chinese zodiac to follow this epic chronicle of Genghis Khan’s early years, as it packs enough action, drama and emotion to forgive its occasional lack of coherence.
The fact that Sergei Bodrov’s period piece was Kazakhstan’s official entry for this year’s foreign-language film Oscar makes the Borat gags impossible to avoid. In truth, however, this is a more international affair than that well-deserved nomination implies, boasting as it does a Russian helmer, a Japanese star and a Chinese villain. Some might consider this appropriate given the breadth of Khan’s domain, which extended from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean at the time of his death. But given that this first part, to be followed by a sequel dealing with his old age, concentrates on his youth in Mongolia, it’s odd that, with the exception of Khulan Chuluun as his loyal wife Börte, there are no Mongolians in leading roles.
Choosing Börte to be his bride against the wishes of his chieftain father is the first sign of who nine-year-old Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) will become. After his pop is poisoned by a tribal rival, though, the Khan-in-waiting is forced to draw on all his resourcefulness to stay alive in a land where wolves roam, friends are treacherous and a son automatically inherits his dad’s enemies. The plot cranks up a notch after the now-adult hero (Tadanobu Asano) falls out with ‘blood brother’ Jamukha (Honglei Sun), setting in motion a furious battle for power that fills the screen with thundering hooves, zinging arrows and swishing scimitars. As enthralling as this is, it’s the delicate romance between Temudjin and Börte that ensures this ambitious spectacle is more Gladiator than Alexander.