Mongol (2007): reactions to Sergei Bodrov’s transnational epic

June 7, 2008 at 12:31 am

Coming in the footsteps of Nomad (2006), the Kazakh super production on which director Bodrov was hired mid-way to bring the project to completion, Mongol (2007) is a truly transnational undertaking. A co-production of Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, the film features a Japanese star in the lead (Tadanobu Asano), has a Dutch cinematographer, an Icelandic editor, and a Finnish composer, as well as scores of Chinese and Koreans employed in ‘below the line’ roles.

Filmed on locations in China and Kazakhstan and drawing on the work of famous Russian historian Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), Mongol tells the 12th century story of the early years of the future Genghiz Khan, when he is still known as Temudgin. This ambitious film, which somehow miraculously received an Oscar nomination without much critical buzz, has by now been reviewed widely by writers who seem to unanimously acknowledge its epic qualities. So I will not repeat here details of the plot or analyze the acting, the spectacular photography, the memorable music, or the set and costume design, all of which deserve attention. I thought the film was professionally made, and included some truly impressive moments. But I found flaws with the script: the main character was insufficiently developed; his turning into an inspiring leader was not persuasively shown. The background of dramatic conflicts was not deep enough (e.g. the reasons for his turn against Jamukha, a childhood blood-brother who helped him in need, were far from convincing); the formative factors that underpinned the future Khan’s convictions remained more hinted than stated. Thus while an interesting take on the early years of a complex character who is developing into a powerful and controversial leader, the film did not go deep enough in revealing his inner contradictions and motivations.

What I am more interested in are some aspects of Mongol’s reception.

Even though Mongol is a co-production of four countries and relates to Mongolia most of all, it is widely reviewed as a Russian film. It was Kazakhstan, however, that submitted it as its official entry to the Oscars. Even though the main co-producing country appears to be Germany, it will not be released there until August 2008, about a year after its Russian premiere. There are no data on distribution nor reception in Mongolia, except mentions that media there criticized the choice of Japanese actor for the lead.

Writing this in early June 2008, the film is still only on a limited release in the US and just about to be released in the UK and other European territories, which will probably trigger even more viewer’s reactions. Still, even at this point there are a number of reactions that already permit to look at its framing through references to other films made in the context of discussing Mongol: These include the Indian Asoka (2001), the Thai Suriyothai (2001), as well as the Korean/Chinese sagas Musa (2001) and the Japanese Genghis Khan saga Aoki Ôkami: chi hate umi tsukiru made (2007). A review from an Edinburgh-based critic describes the film as ‘Gladiator(2000) shot in the style of Himalaya(1999)’, and makes references to Chinese Hero(2002) and Braveheart (1995). A Russian review compares it to Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938).

In France, where I saw it at the time of its release in April 2008, Mongol was prominently advertised through trailers and posters, but left the critics indifferent and soon moved to less prominent theaters.

Looking at discussions around Mongol, one can distinguish two groups of reactions: those who seek historical accuracy are disappointed, critical of the artistic license that the director takes at moments, and unhappy about the use of a Japanese actor. Those who are not scrutinizing the film as a historical document but assess it as entertainment seem to embrace it unreservedly. In the course of a discussion on the matter if the film was historically accurate, a user summarized the attitude of the second group by saying: ‘if it is a good story, who cares about history’.

Tracing the film’s festival travels reveals an interesting picture of strategic use of festivals and global exposure. The film has not been submitted at any of the A-category international festivals (like Venice, Cannes or Berlinale) but entered instead at festivals that grant excellent exposure to programmers and buyers with deep pockets, like Toronto, Rome, and Dubai. The showing at the Palm Springs in early January 2007 seems to be the only screening of the film on US soil that allowed for the film to qualify for an Oscar nomination. In February 2008 Mongol played at the European Film Market in Berlin (but not at the festival): At the time when the outcome of its Oscar short-listing was still pending this seems a particularly good approach to secure wider world sales.

Judging by user comments posted at the IMDb, Mongol has played at a significantly wider range of festivals than the ten or so festivals listed at the ‘release dates’ section of the same database. From user’s comments one can conclude that besides Santa Barbara and Portland, the film has played at festivals in Indianapolis, Dallas, Wisconsin, Seattle, Hawaii, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, and so on. In light of Picturehouse Entertainment’s decision to limit the theatrical release of Mongol to L.A. and New York (probably because they do not believe it would bring much business elsewhere) one wonders if such extensive showings through the festival network help the film’s business or, indeed, hinder it.

There are people writing on the IMDb who are based in Indonesia, Israel and India and have already seen the film even though it does not seem to be in official distribution in these territories: so they probably saw it in the context of other festivals (leaving aside the issue of possible pirate downloads which I am unable to comment on).

Something else that merits looking at is the comment made by many viewers who found the film’s trailer misleading: they were made to expect epic battles (of which there aren’t many in the film) and not a psychological drama. Others protested that the trailer is attached to films screened in parts of the U.S. where no release seems to have been planned at the moment. Is this a novel way to build up interest in auxiliary DVD releases?

©Dina Iordanova
7 June 2008