Be honest, when was the last time you saw a movie from Kazakhstan?
Most of us could barely point it out on a map, let alone name any of this mysterious Central Asian country’s cultural achievements. How about Mongolia? When was the last time you saw a film in Mongolian?
But what may at first sound off-putting, all starts to make sense when you realise that Mongol is a gloriously ambitious biopic of Genghis Khan. The notorious and near-legendary 12th century Mongol warlord somehow managed to build the world’s largest ever contiguous empire – stretching all the way from Korea in the east to Poland in the west. It was an almost incomprehensible feat. Just look at a map of the world to see how vast an accomplishment this was.
It would be all but impossible today, with all the benefits of air power and motorised transport – yet this was an empire founded by nomadic tribesmen mounted on horses. An empire that covered nearly thirteen million square miles, 22 per cent of the earth’s landmass, holding sway over a hundred million people – at the time around a quarter of the world’s population.
Yes, there have been biopics of Genghis Khan before – most notoriously the embarrassingly awful 1956 flick The Conqueror, with John Wayne utterly miscast as Khan, and the so-so 1965 Omar Sharif-starring biopic. There was even quite a good British TV miniseries only a few years back in 2005, and a highly-rated Chinese take back in 1998 (albeit one that has never seen a UK release), meaning many of us may have had our fill.
But you certainly shouldn’t let this put you off – nor should you be concerned that the Kazakhstani/Mongolian backers mean that this is a low-budget affair, because the real money came from Germany and Russia, both with highly promising cinematic revivals going on at the moment. Directed and co-written by one of Russia’s leading directors, Sergei Bodrov, it also stars arguably the coolest Japanese actor working today. No, not Takeshi Kitano (though he would have been a good choice were he a bit younger), but Tadanobu Asano – perhaps not yet so well-known in the west, but a genuine megastar in the east.
Best-known outside Japan for his role alongside Takeshi Kitano in 2003’s superb samurai flick Zatoichi and as the psychotic Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s cult hit Ichi the Killer back in 2001, Asano should by rights already have made the leap into international superstardom. Combining the versatility and charm of Johnny Depp with the classic Japanese cool of Akira Kurosawa’s favourite lead actor Toshiro Mifune, he has both the looks and the ability to make it genuinely big time – and given a few more roles like this bravura outing, it can surely be only a matter of when, not if, Hollywood finally begins to take notice.
If that still doesn’t convince you, bear in mind that this was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Oscars, having already cleaned up at the Russian equivalent, with no fewer than six gongs (for Cinematography, Director, Costumes, Production Design, Sound and Best Film).
With Russian movies currently at a peak of quality not seen since the days of cinematic founding father Sergei Eisenstein – with films like the excellent war film 9th Company and nu-metal vampire flick Night Watch picking up global acclaim – this is no mean feat. But ignore obvious comparisons to Russian movies alone, this is a triumph by any standards – a beautifully-shot, if violent, epic that could (and should) be favourably ranked alongside the classics of the genre. Never mind the subtitles – this is a film well worth a look, and one that really should be seen on the big screen for it to be fully appreciated.