Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan DVD Review

The backstory of the legendary world-conquerer is explored in this bold new vision of a bloody chapter in world history…

How refreshing to see a “world cinema” entry into the historical epic genre for a change. Genghis Khan gets the cinematic treatment here in Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan which comes as a pan-Asian challenge to Hollywood blockbuster efforts to bring the barbaric past to the big screen. Sticking on a camel-skin hat and grabbing the saddle as the great Genghis is Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu, who Westerners may remember for his roles in Ichi the Killer and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi. With a subtle yet stirring performance that easily brushes aside any lingering images of John Wayne wearing make-up in The Conqueror, Tadanobu is a key ingredient in this movie’s attempt to offer a backstory and character study rather than crank up the body count and bluntly dole out some blockbuster warfare.

Thinking about it, The Pre-Supremacy Hardships Suffered by Genghis Khan may have been a more appropriate subtitle considering that the film focuses not on the hacking, sacking and half-globe-conquering but rather upon the terrible trials young Temüjin faces before he rises up to become Genghis Khan – the infamous invading leader whose name leaves mere mortals all a quiver. Yes viewers, behind the legend there’s an unlucky little boy whose dad (the Khan) gets killed and who ends up encountering an admittedly far-fetched but yet fascinating series of unfortunate events in the desolation of the Gobi desert.

Alongside a desire to get revenge on his enemies (of which Honglei Sun’s viciously charismatic Jamukha is the most imposing) and extended periods in slavery or solitary wilderness-wandering, Temüjin’s tale is also one of husbandly devotion to his wife Borte. In terms of story then, Mongol is more of a well-rounded folklore epic than the a pulpy presentation of cut-throat savagery that you’d perhaps expect from an account of the Khan, but considering that we’re channelling a poorly chronicled period here, whether it’s historically accurate or artistically liberal for the sake of drama matters little. As an artistic film that humanises a historical legend and weaves a poignant plot of politics and strategy, Mongol makes for appealing, intriguing entertainment.

Much of the lyricism stems from the landscapes and – through location shoots in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China – Russian helmer Bodrov brilliantly lays the foundation by utilising the bare natural canvas to build his unfolding narrative. The cinematography is astounding and the middle-of-nowhere settings emphatically underline the brutal isolation and rugged resolve of Temüjin and his fellow Mongols. With the exception of an overwrought strobe-lightning storm in one battle sequence that would be more welcome in a death metal music video, Mongol’s aesthetics are outstanding throughout.

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When the actual skirmishes do break out, the violence is visceral, the action bloody exciting and the entire setting believable thanks to period detail. The level of expertise involved in staging battle on horseback completely decked out  in12th century Mongol armour, weaponry and outfits is undeniably impressive, especially considering that it was all crafted on a relatively meagre $10 million budget.

EXTRAS All in all, it’s just a shame that the DVD is about as bare as the steppes that Genghis Khan so ruthlessly ravaged. Sadly the only special features are a bombastic trailer for the international cinema release and a behind-the-scenes feature that presents the personal thoughts on filming and the real-life figure from the cast and crew.

Perhaps feeling that the film may leave an underwhelming impression with its portrayal of a humble, compassionate Khan, the contributors go all out to amp up the astounding nature of the Mongol ruler in the making-of doc. What insights into the film that are gleaned are of genuine interest and it’s a real pity that it’s all packed into 25 minutes for a TV-friendly promo analysis. This is the sort of stuff that would benefit from bonus historical documentaries about the real Genghis Khan, with extensive in-depth featurettes, cast biographies and a couple of art/costume galleries as an added incentive. Unfortunately, as usual when it comes to world cinema releases, the added extras are minimal.

Some bloodshed, lots of beards and a bit of difference from the common connection of “Genghis Khan was a raging barbarian who ravaged the lands and wreaked mass havoc” – Mongol is something that’s a little bit special and another flick that firmly shows that Asian cinema is by no means inferior when it comes to bold drama.


4 stars
2 stars

Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan is out now.

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4 out of 5