Making of a World Conqueror

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Mongol' Looks at Genghis Khan Before He Was Khan

While I was watching the Genghis Khan biopic “Mongol,” a periodic thought crossed my mind: This spectacle is so much better than “10,000 BC”! Like that big-studio production, “Mongol” is another recently released epic showcasing battles long past involving a prescient young leader, societal transformation, coalitions, slavery, rescue of abducted loved ones, etc.

But unlike the hollow Hollywood “10,000 BC,” “Mongol” boasts fine ensemble acting, cinematography, production design and costumes. In fact, it’s the first Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Kazakhstan, which jointly produced the flick with Russia, Mongolia and Germany.

“Mongol” vividly brings to life the time of Genghis Khan, born Temudgin. As you might expect, there are plenty of grand, exciting battle sequences. These well-executed scenes are a pleasant bonus, as Russian co-writer-director Sergei Bodrov (“Prisoner of the Mountains”) is not so much known for large-scale action but rather for drama. The biopic tells Temudgin’s story as a boy (Odnyam Odsuren) and young man (Japanese star Tadanobu Asano from Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi”).

As a child, Temudgin’s father is poisoned, putting him in line to become Khan (“leader”) of his tribe. Instead, his adult rival Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) seizes power and property. He can’t kill Temudgin though until he grows up (per Mongol custom), so Temudgin is held in captivity. But he escapes and survives a perilous childhood to grow up, claim his bride Borte, split ways with his blood brother, become enslaved by the Chinese, escape, unite the feuding Mongolian tribes, and gain the title of Genghis Khan — roughly translated as “universal leader.” (The details of his conquests establishing the Mongolian Empire are saved for the planned parts two and three.)

The film succeeds in developing Temudgin as a character who’s more complex than simply a one-dimensional bloodthirsty pillager and plunderer. It does hint at the brutality that has made Genghis Khan infamous in popular historical accounts, particularly those by people he conquered. On the other hand, unlike his peers, he’s shown to treat his soldiers fairly while striving to uphold the law and create an orderly society — even if it means being unmistakably brutal.

Mongol (Mongolian with subtitles; 121 min.; scope) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., June 20 AFI Silver Theatre Opens Fri., June 27

4 out of 5 stars

Familiar ‘Reprise’

Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier makes his feature debut with “Reprise,” which pays stylish tribute to the sometimes breezy but still smart films of the early Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), such as François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.” (“Reprise” has picked up awards at the Edinburgh, Karlovy Vary and Toronto film festivals, as well as Best Direction and Best Screenplay at Norway’s Amanda Awards.)

“Reprise” engagingly relates how hip, intellectual youths in Oslo are trying to figure out their careers, relationships, lives, etc. In fact, some scenes, notably at the beginning and end, are clearly theoretical — even being called so by the narrator. Trier uses well-edited montage sequences as crisp shorthand to present these possible outcomes.

Such speculation is appropriate because the two protagonists, Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman Hoiner), are up-and-coming authors who also still have their own lives to write. Though they aspire for publication, they say they only want cult success as writers. (The news of Phillip’s manuscript being published is followed by his ending up in a mental hospital — a stay related to an obsessive relationship that is significantly explored if not understood.)

The two young men are college-age with an immediate peer group of male friends who also purportedly disdain respectable mainstream society. Interestingly, they overtly value “highbrow” books equally with “hip” rock music. This atmosphere will feel very European, particularly to an American audience used to the dominance of pop culture in the lives of young people portrayed on screen. Here, books get more playing time, though the main focus is the universal struggle of people trying to determine where things fit in life.

At times, the film can seem sort of aimless, without knowing where it’s going. But that’s exactly the point of a work intended to reflect the lives of characters who don’t know what their own next step will be.

Reprise (Norwegian with subtitles; 105 min.) Now playing Landmark’s E Street Cinema

3.5 out of 5 stars

Satirical ‘Spies’

With “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” French co-writer-director Michel Hazanavicius handily adapts while spoofing author Jean Bruce’s OSS 117 spy series (265 novels to date, plus seven films from 1956 to 1970). The long-running series actually kicked off in 1949, predating Ian Fleming’s iconic James Bond franchise.

As a satire, this latest OSS 117 film works sort of like the original “Casino Royale” (1967), parodying Fleming’s first Bond book (1953). More generally, “Cairo, Nest of Spies” pays homage to the entire genre of spy capers from the 1960s era — a feat particularly well done within the realm of production design, costumes and score.

Playing OSS 117, the code name of our hero Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, French comic Jean Dujardin is coiffed to startlingly resemble a young Sean Connery, the original cinematic James Bond (“Dr. No”). OSS 117 is sent to Cairo to investigate the apparent death of his colleague and friend after a picture surfaces showing his dead body. Though praised by superiors for his understanding of Arab culture, OSS 117 is actually a conceited elitist whose ignorance causes him to bumble around his mission.

His characters opinions satirize the legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East, asking, for instance, What kind of stupid religion would forbid alcohol? Each faux pas is expressed in a deadpan manner, usually resulting in glaring silence from his stunned conversation partner, frequently his Arab secretary Larmina (Bérénice Béjo). When it becomes too much to endure, OSS 117 is put in his place by being dumped, beaten, etc. All the buffoonery can drag a bit at times, but Cairo, Nest of Spies is still a fun flick with more depth than Austin Powers.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire nid d’Espions) (French with subtitles; 99 min.; scope) Now playing Landmark’s E Street Cinema

3.5 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

AFI Silver Theatre Christophe Honorés popular French musical Love Songs, a modern homage to the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), opens June 6 for a one-week run at AFI. The DC Caribbean Film Fest comes June 6 to 7. The opening night features a reception preceding Africa Unite, a celebration of Bob Marleys 60th birthday. The Korean Film Festival DC 2008 runs through June 12, and “Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s” plays through July 3. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

Freer Gallery of Art Presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Yellow Mountain: China’s Ever-Changing Landscape,” the film series “King Hu: Inspired by Taiwan” starts June 6, showcasing the work of legendary kung fu director King Hu, including his influential classic “Dragon Gate Inn,” inspired by Beijing Opera. “Tatsuya Nakadai: Icon of Japanese Cinema” starts June 15 with Masaki Kobayashi’s dazzling samurai flick “Hari Kari.” The Korean Film Festival DC 2008 continues through June 4. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

National Gallery of Art From June 7 to 28, the series “Gabriel Figueroa: Master of Light and Shade” looks at Gabriel Figueroa behind the lens of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema. It also previews the upcoming exhibit “Gabriel Figueroa: Cinematographer” at the Mexican Film Institute (Nov. 28-January 2009). Continuing through June 29, “Envisioning Russia: Mosfilm Studio” surveys films made by the biggest studio in Russia. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

Third Annual Asian-European Short Film Showcase The “Crossing Borders” series from June 2 to 13 crosses countries as well as repertory theaters across Washington, D.C. Pairings of short films from eight Asian (China, Korea, Japan and India) and European (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) countries, followed by discussions, highlight and compare issues facing these cultures today. www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/en3326490v.htm

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999