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By the time Sergei Bodrov's Mongol runs into its second hour, the What of the movie ceases to be as interesting as the Why. Once it becomes clear that there is only going to be more of the former — battle scenes punctuated by sweeping vistas of forbidding beauty — one begins to think about what might have prompted Mr Bodrov to make this film as he has made it, and not in some other way. From the perspective of an educated American, with no vested interest in any of the myriad strands of Central Asian complication, it would seem a better bet to set an action-comic fable in Mongolia's vast, austere majesty. Something equal parts Sitting Bull and Conan the Barbarian, with a dash of Prince Valiant. That way, no one would fault the filmmaker for having wrenched the names of a handful of historical and semi-historical figures out of context, and endowed them with the fierce but familial instincts of the contemporary XBoxer.

In other words, who is going to watch this movie with the feel-good response of petted patriotism? Are there moviegoers out there who will take pleasure in the illusion that Genghis Khan was a soulful loner, prepared to go to the ends of the earth (more or less) to be re-united with his bride — who, for all her charms, never let him forget that she chose him — and resolved to "give" the Mongol people decent laws that he, even if he had to kill "half of them," would vigorously enforce?

Mr Bodrov's Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) — we're not told that our hero will be known as "Genghis Khan" until the very end, news that will come as a surprise only to those who missed the film's marketing tag line — is a man for our times. Just imagine: what if you, as a chubby nine year-old, knew how to operate a horse on the Asian steppe as well as you could handle Linux or Ajax. That Harry Potter had taught you everything about the nuances of real-world power that the average secretary of state needs to know. When Temudjin's father, Khan Esugei (Ba Sen) tells his son that he he can't marry Bφrte (Khulan Chuluun) because she comes from a weak clan, Temudjin, broaching a trial marriage, replies — and, remember, he's only nine — "If they are weak, let them be offended."*

The principal conflict in Mongol is the brotherly love/deadly rivalry that Temudjin has to work out with Jamukha, a khan-in-training who saves him after a wintry swim in an ice-crusted lake. (Odnyam Odsuren and Amarbold Tuvshinbayar, respectively, play the juvenile roles; Jamukha grows up to become Honglei Sun, a perfect extroverted foil to Mr Tadanobu's steely quietude.) The boys stoically slice open their palms and commingle their blood in a bowl of milk, a gesture that obliges them to refrain from killing each other once they both become Alpha males. We have seen this movie dozens of time before, if rarely with such breathtaking scenery. Temudjin and Jamukha are indeed guys for our time.

"Not an ounce of historical truth," complained a memberof the audience, not without glee, after the show. She certainly looked like an emeritus professor of Asian studies, someone who knew tons of historical truth. Anyone with a modicum of learning will be forced to agree. This is the untold story of Genghis Khan for a reason. At the same time, one has to admire the naturalism of Mr Bodrov's filmmaking. If Mr Bodrov resorted to more in the way of "special effects" than a bit of slow-motion footage, then he is to be commended for the artistry with which he concealed it. Although there is plenty of blood, no decapitated heads fly through the air, and the grisliest touch is the crunch of metal piercing rudimentary armor, flesh, and bone.

Why, though — I continued to ask. The best I could come up with fairly embarrassed me. Although the earlier parts of Mongol feature the same living arrangements — yurts — as Hao Ning's gloriously sweet Mongolian Ping Pong (which Mongol made me want to run out and see again, right away), the latter part of the film moves up the mountainsides into conifer forests that might look extremely familiar to Americans who don't even know where Mongolia is. This familiarity will be intensified by the sight of — teepees. The denizens of Eurasia, after longing wistfully for the macho freedom of the American West, have their very own native cowboys and Indians at last. That's something to remember before we start to complain about Mr Bodrov's disregard for "historical truth." (June 2008)

* At least this is what I think Temudjin meant. Subtitles from the Mongolian are all too apt to mislead.

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