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I bet Mongolia produces hundreds of really cool movies every year, but everybody thinks "Mongolia? That's all sheep isn't it? Can't be any good", and ignores them completely. That is, until they make a movie about their most famous export, Mr Genghis Khan. Everybody's heard or Genghis Khan, after all, and his barbarian hordes, and a biopic actually made in Mongolia ought to have that extra bit of authenticity. Therefore, the world sits up with sleepy eyes and takes note.
The reason I think Mongolia must make a lot of movies that the rest of the world ignores is because Genghis Khan is the first Mongolian movie I've even heard of, and it's really good. And people don't usually make really good movies without some practise, so I assume it's not the makers' first attempt.
The movie is a 'costume epic', of the 'hundreds of riders on horseback killing each other a lot' subgenre. One of my favourite genre/subgenres, in which I know I am not alone. It tells the story of Genghis's life from his birth (around 1167 apparently) to his uniting of the Mongol tribes (around 1206). It shows Genghis to be much more than a bloodthirsty barbarian, as he is often viewed in the West... in fact, his strong love for his mother was apparently his most famous personality trait. As a child, his family is forced into exile after his father - leader of the tribe - is betrayed and killed by a rival. Somehow, they survive on the plains, and when he reaches adulthood he returns to claim his throne (or his tassled spear, in fact, since thrones aren't generally popular with nomadic tribes). From there, he leads his people into battle again, becoming an increasingly more powerful and renowned military leader as he grows and learns.
The plot has a slightly dry "historical timeline" kind of feel to it, but the situations (and hence the movie at large) are made more engaging by some great performances. Genghis both young and old is a rounded character, flawed but honorable and likeable, and his loyal wife is quite adorable... but his mother steals the show. Strong, passionate, independant, etc. The kind of mother to raise empire-builders for sure. There's quite a lot of other characters involved in Genghis's story, but the movie focuses on the small core cast to ensure we don't become too bewildered. The historical feel is well conveyed by the movie's production - costumes, makeup and all the various props and sets all feel very authentic. The cinematography is excellent throughout, creating stunning images of the mountains and plains of Mongolia... especially during the battle scenes, where hundreds of riders on horseback charge around waving swords and spears and kicking up dust everywhere. Very impressive, though MUSA has since raised the standard for such scenes significantly of course. The scenes in GENGHIS KHAN are not as good as those in MUSA, unquestionably, but they aren't too shabby when compared with other competition such as ASOKA and SURIYOTHAI.
I must make mention of the movie's soundtrack, too - a really great score, beautifully composed and orchestrated, very epic and emotive. It's reminiscent in places of the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON soundtrack.
My conclusion is a strong recommendation for the movie, especially if you have enjoyed MUSA, ASOKA, SURIYOTHAI etc. The Hong Kong DVD is not too great unfortunately, but is at least widescreen (very) and subtitled (badly). It would be nice to see a US studio pick it up, remaster it and release it theatrically and on DVD - except it probably wouldn't be the same after they'd had Zhang Ziyi re-dub Genghis' narration in English, and re-edited the battle scenes with Kevin Costner teaching Genghis military strategy...
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