Many directors seem to struggle for much of their career. Why? Some can attribute the problems from which they long suffer to a great bevy of reasons: not being fully prepared to grapple with the inherent themes of a screenplay; suffering from a miscast pivotal actor that harms the film and prevents the director from extracting the best performance he could theoretically summon for this specific part; some forms of bad luck... What have you. Yet sometimes the easiest explanations can also be the truest. In the case of Russian writer-director Sergei Bodrov, it seems that it's the issue of (for him) appropriate subject matter that often holds him back.
Perusing Bodrov's filmography, I was somewhat startled to discover just how many films of his I have seen, and just how many I have found--to one degree or another--wanting. In S.E.R.--Svoboda eto rai, which won big at the Montreal Film Festival in 1989, Bodrov's ostensibly blunt, frequently ham-fisted variation of humanism is so hopelessly wrapped up in itself that it suffocates the narrative. Katala or The Gambler, also 1989, was even more exasperating: so many truly interesting moral dilemmas, none of them ever properly fleshed out, key relationships narratively squandered and again, a kind of painful smothering of nuance with almost instantaneously obsolete dialogue. Ya khotela uvidet angelov (1992) was a thoroughly botched surreal "fairytale," again devastated by bumptious, witless dialogue.
The best film of Bodrov's I had seen before Mongol was Kavkazskiy plennik or Prisoner of the Mountains (1996). This, a wartime drama with purposefully broad characterizations and sketchy concepts, suited Bodrov. It was simple yet narratively at least somewhat refined, with a strong universalist message that was easily communicated by a competent director. 1999's Running Free was a kind of joke of a movie, about a horse--I only vaguely remember it at all, and do not even remember why I watched it. And, finally, The Quickie (2001), was a dreadfully boring movie that promised some kind of steamy, sexy "happening" amidst what ought to have been the fairly captivating milieu of the Russian mob in America, but reneged on even that base level of cinematic pleasure just as it reneged on practically all of its narrative inevitable momentum and impetus in favor of puerile trickery. Jennifer Jason Leigh tried hard and there's nothing wrong with giving a more quotidian dimension to mob life, but did it have to be such a plodding, inert monument to tedium?
Which brings me to Mongol. Like Bodrov's best film (that I have seen) pre-Mongol, Kavkazsky plennik, this is in many ways a war movie. It is also an historical epic, a kind of David Lean/artsy Cecil B. DeMille "old-school" (which in today's parlance primarily indicates a limit to the CGI) adventure story with action aplenty. And with this film--nominated for Best Foreign Language at this last Oscar ceremony--Bodrov seems to have found the calling about which I speculated after viewing Kavkazsky plennik. In film after film, he has tried, unsuccessfully, to employ subtlety at the most elemental level of storytelling (the kind of story one's telling) when it's apparent he ought to be letting his operatic self go and just have fun being a potential Russian counterpart to Walter Hill or perhaps Oliver Stone, or just maybe even Mel Gibson (gosh, what a motley trio there). War films and epics tend to rely on action to explain motivation as much as motivation supplies reason for the action. Especially when life is as barren, desolate and desperate as it was for most Mongolians in the late twelfth century. By making a film that can arguably be more purely cinematic in its atmospherics and tropes, Bodrov seems to have found himself.
Which isn't to say that the unfortunate traits have all disappeared. Even with a film so naturally at home with mere glances and gestures sufficing for communication, Bodrov pours on the awkward, staged and distractingly mannered dialogue scenes. Like an old, dusty DeMille spectacular, these sequences are stifling in their lack of irony and implementation in providing the next extended scene of nebulous psychoanalysis. Genghis Khan, correctly known as Temudgin, is played by restrained and intelligently composed Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and his wife, Borte, is given life by a convincingly rugged Mongolian actress, Khulan Chuluun (who is also quite fetching). In one scene, Borte tells Temudgin that Mongolian culture has declined and worsened since the last time they were together (it's a long story, and I'll let you enjoy it for yourself sans the taint of spoilers), and Mongolian warriors typically do not follow old Mongolian customs and ways, such as sparing the lives of innocent women and children. Her message, which is that the Mongols are severely lacking in a central force of power that can unify and properly legislate codes of conduct, actuates a long scene in which Temudgin explains in a kind of voice-over to the viewer that he is newly committed to the unification of Mongol tribes and passing down of laws. Most scenes such as these are of a depressingly literate nature, though sometimes the dialogue seems sufficiently authentic to warrant sequences of phatic verbalization.
Where the film works completely, then, is in its fluid, almost rhythmically serene action. In this regard, Mongol is everything Stone's Alexander and last year's laughable 300 wish they were: an enriching cinematic illumination of the ways of man on earth, bound to his primordial instinct of violence juxtaposed against the pitiless tides of history. (Though Troy is quite flawed, Wolfgang Petersen--who, with remarkable skill delved into these themes coupled with a more modern "anti-war" bent in his seminal submarine epic Das Boot--managed to grapple with this draining issue, one perhaps older than the Greek playwright Sophocles' heartbreaking and bleak Antigone, from which the question--"Why do the gods allow bad things to happen to good people?"--would merely find one echo after another throughout history.) The film's depiction of twelfth-century Mongol warfare is startling in its immediacy, and ultimately sumptuously spiritual. Indeed, the film is completely devoted to the mythical aspect of the Genghis Khan, who possibly consults with the Mongol god, Tengri, God of the Blue Sky, in the form of a wolf on two separate occasions. As a child, Temudgin runs across a barely frozen-over lake, and falls through. Bodrov boldly allows the image to linger, and then merely move on. How Temudgin escaped death is unanswered. The force of divine intervention seems to be assisting.
Jamukha as a child became a blood brother to the young Temudgin, and is much later asked by Temudgin to go to war with his enemy tribe, the Merkits, after they have stolen Temudgin's wife. Honglei Sun plays the adult Jamukha with a considered but playful braggadocio, repeatedly cracking his neck when bemused by the circumstances that surround him. His likable, almost too modern presence (he seems to be a man who has seen photographs of himself) gives the film just a hint of comic relief while foreshadowing the concept of anarchic disorder in Mongolia at this time, as alliances are habitually formed and broken.
Thankfully, Mongol is the first part of a planned trilogy. I say thankfully for two main reasons. Firstly, because Mongol is an engrossing film that concludes just as the history on which it is based is becoming ever more interesting (just as he has attained the title of Genghis Khan in 1206). And secondly because it appears as though Sergei Bodrov has found the form in which he was always best suited. Why do directors sometimes seemingly perpetually struggle, only to find great success? Sometimes they finally succumb to being themselves. It's almost Aristotelian. "Revolution within the form."