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Just over a decade ago, Russiandirector Sergei Bodrov made his mark in the West with his Academy Award–nominated movie Prisoner of the Mountains, which transplanted a Tolstoy children’s novella to Russia’s war with Chechnya. Here at L.A. Weekly, we liked the movie enough to put the relatively unknown director, who lived in Los Angeles, on the cover. And though Prisoner seemed an unlikely calling card for Hollywood, its blend of commercial technique and humanistic storytelling swept Bodrov onto the studio radar — which brought him nothing but aggravation. The Quickie (2001), a mob thriller he co-wrote and produced and that starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, went straight to DVD. The family horse movie Running Free (2000) suffered running interference at every level and ended up inviting snorting comparisons to Mister Ed. And in 2005, Bodrov walked onto the troubled set of Nomad: The Warrior, after the original director, Ivan Passer, ran out of money.
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In response to all that — and to the tragic death in an avalanche of his son Sergei Bodrov Jr., a Russian television star who had made his film debut in Prisoner — Bodrov did the smart thing: He quit being a director for hire and made the movie he wanted to make. “My life changed,” says Bodrov, sprawled on a couch at the Beverly Wilshire, looking exhausted from months of promotional globetrotting for his latest film, Mongol. “I wanted to go away, and to be busy.”
A two-hour epic that rewrites the life of Genghis Khan from boyhood to his forging of a Mongolian empire out of warring tribal clans in the 12th century, Mongol was planned as the second in a trilogy, following Nomad, which Bodrov, who completed the film, now dryly calls “a learning experience.” But Mongol, which was shot in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, stands alone as a terrific picture furnished with gorgeous scenery, visceral battle scenes worthy of an Asian action picture, a passionate love story complicated by a male-buddy scenario, furry costumes to die for and a score fortified with music from a Mongolian folk-rock band. In other words, the movie, which brought Bodrov a second Oscar nomination earlier this year, is well placed to hit all four demographic quadrants and make a splashy swan song for departing distributor Picturehouse.
Trained by Andrei Tarkovsky, Bodrov cut his teeth as a screenwriter and director making sardonic, semi-experimental critiques of Russia under communism. (His early film Non-Professionals, which features a cow, a scruffy rock band touring the Kazakh outback and an old-age home for worn-out lady communists, is a must-see.) But Bodrov has powerful commercial instincts, a screenwriter’s practiced funny bone and a maverick’s suspicion of official stories. Indeed, Mongol is nothing less than a revisionist biopic, if revisionist is the word for a man about whom next to nothing is definitively documented. “His history was written by his enemies,” says the director, who never quite believed the tales of brutality he grew up on in Russia, which was occupied by the Mongols for 200 years.
Bodrov did copious research and talked to many modern historians. “The story of Genghis Khan’s childhood is a classic,” he says. “Orphan, slave, escapee, underdog, outlaw, and an amazing love story.” Played as an adult by Japanese cult actor Tadanobu Asano (Zatôichi, Last Life in the Universe), Mongol’s Genghis Khan (birth name, Temudgin) is a classical Western hero — stoic, inscrutable, monosyllabic — who in captivity becomes a Christ-like figure with long hair, then an invincible war hero in battle dress with a statesman’s instinctive understanding of the interplay of negotiation and force, who imposes the rule of law on warring Mongol tribes bent on mutual destruction.
Whether Mongol humanizes or distorts Genghis Khan, both as a ruler and an uxorious husband and father of the child his wife bore to a captor from another clan (a probably apocryphal legend has it that the womanizing Khan was finally killed by a tweezer deliberately secreted in the vagina of his last lover) may be less interesting than the movie’s varied reception in post-Soviet countries awash in nationalist revival. “The movie played much better than expected in Russia,” says Bodrov, “though, of course, there were different reactions. Some people said, ‘Oh, you took the Mongolians’ side.’” Bodrov was more upset by the Mongolian reaction he met with when he went to shoot the film there. “I came with an open heart and good intentions. I translated the script into Mongolian. Scandal broke immediately. Under the Soviets, Mongolia was a Russian republic, so Genghis Khan’s name was forbidden, because he was the enemy of the Russians. When Mongolia became independent, Khan became a god. And I come in, a Russian, and the historians and the media said, ‘No, he was never captured, and the story of him raising someone else’s kid is completely insulting for us.’ I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen, so I told them I will make the movie anyway. And I left, and shot the movie in Inner Mongolia in China, though with many Mongolians in the cast.”
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