Mongol


Mongol

There are more than four horseman of the apocalypse in Mongolia.

(2007) Biographical Drama (Picturhouse) Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren, Aliya, Ba Sen, Amadu Mamadakov, Ba Yin, He Qi, Su Ben Hou, Ji Ri Mu Tu, A You Er, Hong Jong Ba Tu, E Er Deng Ba Te Er, Sai Xing Ga, Bayersetseg Erdenebat. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

 

Speaking for myself personally I have a great love for history. Understanding what has happened in our past helps us to understand who we are in the present. The history of Asia, Africa and Australia are largely unknown here as we are mostly taught the history of the United States and Western Europe.

Temudjin (whose name should properly be spelled Temuchin) would later be known as Genghis Khan, a man even ignorant Western ears have heard of. However, as the movie opens up, he is a little boy (Odsuren) whose father (Sen) is a warlord who needs to see his son betrothed. While his father is eager for a more politically advantageous union, his son becomes smitten with Borthe, a young girl (Erdenebat) with a feisty nature. Temudjin manages to convince his father to allow him to become betrothed to Borthe, promising that he will come to claim her in five years. The party heads for home.

On the way home his father is poisoned by a treacherous tribe betraying the Mongol tradition of hospitality. His father names him Khan which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warriors who know that Temudjin’s mother was the war prisoner from a different tribe.

One of those warriors, Targutai (Mamadakov) spares the life of the young Temudjin, claiming that Mongols don’t kill children but they apparently do leave them in the steppes to die. Temudjin is found face down in the snow by Jamukha who becomes his blood brother.

Later, Targutai captures Temudjin and enslaves him. He escapes and grows to manhood (Asano) without a tribe. He is once again captured by Targutai who is now free to kill the adult Temudjin but the young man escapes anyway and this time finds Borthe (Chuluun) and resolves to bring her back to his family. However, they are attacked by the tribe Temudjin’s mother had been captured from and he takes an arrow. Borthe whips the horse Temudjin is on, sacrificing herself for the man she loves and becomes the slave/concubine of the warlord Chiledu (Ga).

Temudjin approaches Jamukha (Sun), now a Khan himself, and asks for help in liberating his wife from the Merkit. Jamukha agrees to this, but a year passes before the attack actually takes place. In the interim Chiledu has passed away and Borthe has had a son by Chiledu. Temudjin takes the son as his own, despite the mutterings of both his own warriors and those of Jamukha. The next morning when Temudjin takes his leave to return home, a pair of warriors from Jamukha’s tribe accompany him since Temudjin distributes more plunder among his warriors than their former Khan. Jamukha rides after them and demands their return but Temudjin responds that every Mongol is free to choose their own Khan. Jamukha warns Temudjin that this will undoubtedly lead to future conflict which it does when Jamukha’s brother is killed attempting to steal the horses back of the warriors who had defected to Temudjin’s tribe.

Jamukha has vast numerical superiority and quickly overwhelms Temudjin’s forces. Rather than execute his childhood friend, however, he chooses to sell him into slavery. Borthe is misinformed that her husband is dead. Will Temudjin be able to escape once again?

This is  magnificent sprawling epic of the sort that David Lean used to make. Using a pair of cinematographers, Bodrov manages to create magnificent vistas of the barren steppes as well as lovely recreations of ancient Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) as well as villages of the era. This is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see in the last five to ten years.

It also boasts the fine Japanese actor Asano. While the movie is subtitled, Asano is magnificent with his facial expressions. You may not always understand what he’s saying but he conveys everything he is thinking and feeling with his face and eyes, his expressiveness giving flesh and blood to the historical figure Temuchin. Asano also has fine chemistry with Chuluun who amazingly enough is not a professional actress but was someone that the casting director met in the Russian embassy in China when she was leaving after having searched fruitlessly for the right actress to play Borche.

Now, as far as historical accuracy is concerned things get a little dicey. For one thing, not much is really known about the great Khan’s childhood and young adult life as the Mongolians didn’t really believe in written records. Much of what we see onscreen is conjecture and to be honest some of it seems somewhat unlikely given what few facts we do know.

There are plenty of battle scenes here with lots of arterial blood spurting in graceful parabolas through the air to liberally coat the camera lens. It can be pretty brutal and not for the squeamish. We also don’t get a whole lot of insight into everyday life on the steppes. We just get the sense that Temuchin went from slavery to battle to battle to slavery and so on. I’m quite sure there was more to his life than that.

This was the first film in a projected trilogy which unfortunately will not be completed – the other two to cover his rise as Genghis Khan and his eventual fall. While the remote locations helped keep costs down in making this movie, the movie was nevertheless unprofitable and the great difficulty in making the movie to begin with has essentially derailed the project permanently. I would have liked to have seen those films, but at least we have this one to excite our imaginations and certainly Mongol does that expertly.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography. Asano turns a magnificent performance in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and is probably a good 15-20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some battle sequences that are quite bloody and gory.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China where more Mongolians live than in Mongolia itself) in places so remote that roads had to be built by the crew in order to travel there, and where dailies – which normally take 24 hours to make it back to the production, took three weeks to arrive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: 21 Jump Street

Babies (Bebes)


Babies

Laughing all the way to the bank.

(2010) Documentary (Focus) Bayar, Hattie, Mari, Ponijao. Directed by Thomas Balmes

 

As a species, we have a thing about babies. Now, that doesn’t differentiate us much from any other species – procreation is, after all, a survival imperative. However, what does is that we obsess about the babies of other people, not just our own. While other species will protect the babies of those within their own family or group, they don’t particularly show much interest beyond that. You don’t see a lion cooing over another lion’s cub.

Of course, lion’s don’t coo either. However, humans can and do and will. Here we have plenty of opportunity to coo. This is a French documentary about four babies born in four different parts of the world – Hattie in San Francisco, Ponijao in tribal Africa (Namibia to be exact) Bayar on the frozen steppes of Mongolia and Mari in bustling Tokyo. The film covers roughly the first year of their life, from shortly after birth.

What differentiates this movie is that there are no cute graphics, no narration and no attempt of some Hollywood star to read a script from a writer who purports to know what the babies are thinking. This is not a Disney nature film in other words. There are no statistics, nothing particularly depressing, just 78 minutes of watching babies do their thing, be it nursing, snoozing, smacking other babies about the head, playing with toys, crawling, crying and being cuddled.

While it is a fresh approach (and welcome to most), therein lies the issue for me. It really is completely observational of the babies themselves and while that can be fascinating for a short time by the end of the movie (and it’s a short movie folks) I found myself fidgeting. It’s really akin to watching someone else’s home movies, albeit with better production values. Most of us don’t have HD film cameras and high-end film stock; we mostly have to settle for digital cams and cheap home video recorders, even cell phone video cameras.

That said, there are a lot of people who are going to ooh and ahh over this and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love babies in general, you will find your nirvana here. All of the kids have definable personalities and indulge in all manners of cuteness, whether they are in a yurt or a pricy Tokyo apartment. There is also a lot of nudity, both from the babies and their moms (and in the case of Namibia, most of the rest of the tribe as well although the men are rarely seen).

The cinematography can be quite beautiful, ranging from the gorgeous Bay Area shots to the majestic but desolate Mongolian steppes, the hyper-kinetic Tokyo cityscape to the dry and dusty African plains. You will certainly get a sense of the environment each baby is growing up in and no value judgments are made either – the ones growing up in abject poverty are no less happy than the ones growing up in the West.

I’m not really a baby person. They’re cute, sure, but I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time around them. I’ve kinda done my time. So take this with a grain of salt – I admire the technical end of the film, the filmmaker’s dedication to giving an unfettered, unvarnished look at babies around the world. I know that there are plenty of people who are going to love this movie.

I’m just not one of them. It was a little like watching paint dry from my aspect, and having a repetitive musical score didn’t help matters. Maybe I’m a little too MTV but I need a bit more than a static camera focused on a bunch of proto-humans who left to their own devices would eat dirt. Not my cup of tea – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be yours, nor are you any worse a person if it isn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Cuteness personified. Reaffirms that we are more alike than not.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is like a 78 minute home movie; if watching someone else’s baby isn’t your thing, you’re going to get restless.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity here of the maternal sort; some nursing and such. If that offends you, this might not be the film for you..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ponijao belongs to the Himba tribe who live near Opuwo, Namibia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on how the children are doing three years after they were filmed. There is also the winners of a studio-sponsored contest in which parents were urged to submit baby videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was almost certainly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: This Means War

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness