Sergei Bodrov: Mongol (2007)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2008

Making a Transnational Film: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Sergei Bodrov's Mongol (2007)

The origins of Sergei Bodrov's new epic feature, Mongol, Part One, tell consumers and critics a lot about the fate of Russian cinema in the new millennium. The German-Kazakh-Russian co-production venture hired a Russian-born film director, together with film workers from other countries, to make a transnational film targeted at multiple national and international communities within the framework of global media-based capitalism. Relying on his experience in making Soviet, Russian, and transnational films, Bodrov completed the new project with exceptional professionalism. He started his career in the 1970s and remained prolific and successful even during the 1990s, the most difficult years for the new Russian film industry. His Prisoner of the Mountains (Kavkazskii plennik, 1996) won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, and was one of the few Russian films to gain international release and acclaim during this decade. In 2005 Bodrov co-directed (with Ivan Passer and Talgat Temenov) the most expensive Kazakh film ever made, a $40 million historical epic, Nomad (Kochevniki).

Mongol is, above all, a Hollywood melodrama, that is, a story of love, fall, and redemption, in fact a story of a bourgeois nuclear family threatened by historical forces beyond the heroes' control at the film's beginning. The lovers' many separations caused by larger than life historical forces, enhanced by superb camerawork, editing, and CGI, end up with the eventual reunification of the protagonists. What gives this quintessentially Western story an orientalizing spice is the identity of the protagonists and the film's setting. Bodrov tells a story of the young Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) and his first wife Börte (Khulan Chuluun) set against the background of exotic Central Asian steppes and decorated with sartorial elegance by the film's award winning costume designer, Karin Lohr.

The film also employs the narrative of uncovering the true, softer nature of the protagonist, traditionally seen in Russia and the West as a monster. This paradigm is familiar to any modern viewer brought up on such Western myth-making narratives as the stories of King Kong or Beauty and the Beast. Bodrov debunks the standard Western image of Genghis Khan as a larger than life Oriental monster and presents the alternative story of the early years of the famous empire builder: a story of poverty, slavery, and love overcoming death and treason. Alastair Gee of Moscow Times notes that “Bodrov's drama aims to deconstruct the notion of Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty murderer … ‘Genghis Khan is not a popular man in Russia; his name is not well loved,' Bodrov said. ‘I'm telling a story and saying: look how it happened… He abolished torture, not so many people know about that,' the director added. ‘And Mongolians used to have slaves—he said no to that.'” However, if one doesn't care much about the Mother Theresa side of Genghis Khan, there is plenty of blood and gore in spectacular battle scenes masterfully filmed by Sergei Trofimov [1] and Roger Stoffers [2], and edited by the Oscar-winning Zach Staenberg, the editor of The Matrix (1999; dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski).

Outside former Eastern bloc countries, Bodrov's picture functions as a film for global media consumption. It offers a melodrama plot combined with the story of a man's journey in search of his true identity, with the soundtrack emphasizing its foreignness for the overwhelming majority of film markets. The film's dialogue is in Mongolian and requires subtitles or voice-over translation anywhere but in Mongolia.

Not surprisingly, Mongol was nominated for best foreign film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ironically, but very logically from the viewpoint of transnational cinema, it was nominated for the Oscar as a film representing Kazakhstan (which provided much of the financing for the film). Kazakhstan was put on the map of the global media two years ago by a transnational comic flick, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006; dir. Larry Charles), a different kind of a transnational journey redefining space and the protagonist's identity.

In the countries of the former Eastern bloc, above all in Russia, Kazakhstan, and perhaps Mongolia, the film gets reinterpreted from the points of view of their respective cultural optics. These new countries are in the process of articulating their own national and transnational identities, their place within the global media market. In this respect, Mongol mythologizes the past for the sake of explaining the present identities of these nations.

In the case of Russia, the film fits perfectly within contemporary political uses of Eurasianism, a neo-Romantic trend in Russian intellectual thinking about Russia's Sonderweg defined by its Eurasian—rather than European—geography and cultural history. After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, a group of Russian intellectuals in exile (Petr Savitskii, Nikolai Trubetskoi, Georgii Florovskii, and Petr Suvchinskii) outlined the main tenets of Eurasianism in a collection of articles, Exodus to the Orient. Premonitions and Achievements. Eurasianists' Claims (Iskhod k Vostoku. Predchuvstviia i sversheniia. Utverzhdeniia evraziitsev), published in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1921. Lev Gumilev popularized the ideas of the Eurasianists during the late Soviet period. His The Ancient Rus and the Great Steppe (Drevniaia Rus' i Velikaia step'), first published in 1989, challenged the traditional Soviet and Western views of the brutal Mongol control of Eastern European principalities by claiming that Mongols and Russians were in fact political and economic allies. This alliance, Gumilev claimed, saved Russian Orthodoxy from the Crusaders and provided a fecund cultural influence that established the particular Russian way of political and social organization. After the fall of the Soviet Union, political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin developed the notion of “neo-Eurasianism,” the special way of Russia as a Eurasian ethnic community with a strong role of the sacral state and church in all aspects of social life.

Distributed in Russia, Mongol gets reinterpreted as a motion picture combining the ideas of Eurasianism with the tradition of Soviet-era leader films.[3] Bodrov is not a pioneer of this trend of Eurasianism-inspired cinema. In post-Soviet Russia, Nikita Mikhalkov inaugurated the celebration of Russia's special Eurasian way in his Russo-French co-production Close to Eden (Urga, 1991). As for the genre memory of Soviet historical-biographical films, Bodrov brings back the old—but still dear to many former Soviets—notion of the wise leader reuniting the communities lost in the chaos of internecine wars and fratricidal conflicts. Among the best examples of this genre from the Soviet era is Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938); among the worst are late Stalinist biopics, including Mikhail Chiaureli's servile trilogy about Stalin.

The film's opening words appear as an intertitle on the screen: “Don't despise a weak cub, it can turn out to be the son of a tiger.” They reveal the dual, simultaneously transnational and national, identity of the film. For the global market, the maxim functions as a marketing gimmick, a memorable tagline; for the local, Russian or Kazakh markets, the tagline acquires political overtones, arousing pleasant dreams of imperial potency and Eurasian greatness.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

Comment on this review via the Forum or by sending your comments to the Moderator

Notes

1] Among his earlier works are the cinematography of Timurs Bekmambetov's Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006).

2] Stoffers was the Director of Photography for Mike van Diem's Oscar-winning Character (Karakter, 1997).

3] Writing about Mongol, Tsyrkun parodies the style of Soviet-era textbooks about good Russian empire builders: “the great and terrible Genghis Khan is not a ruthless conqueror, but a gatherer of Mongolian lands (that is, an extremely progressive historical figure).”


Works Cited

Gee, Alistair. “A Tyrant’s Softer Side.” Moscow Times (28 September 2007).
Tsyrkun, Nina. “Vtoroe nashestvie.” Iskusstvo kino 9 (2007).


Mongol, Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, 2007
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Sergei Bodrov Sr.
Scriptwriter: Arif Aliev and Sergei Bodrov Sr.
Cinematography: Roger Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov
Composer: Tuomas Kantelinen
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Amadu Mamadakov, Basan, Aliia
Costume Design: Karin Lohr
Production: Andreevskii Flag Film Company, Kinofabrika, Kinokompaniya CTB, X-Filme Creative Pool

images from ctb.ru

Sergei Bodrov: Mongol (2007)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2008

Updated: 23 Mar 08