Mongol trailer, clips and Q&A
We've already seen the trailer for Mongol, but I've just been sent the links to eight clips from the film and an interesting Q&A with the director and a noted historian on Genghis Khan.
The film, if you didn't already know, charts the early life of Genghis Khan and could well be the first part of a trilogy of his complete life from the Russian director Sergei Bodrov.
The film looks really good, and there's no denying that the life of this powerful man who at one point in his life controlled half the world is a fascinating tale, and from the way it's looking I doubt that we're going to see anything less than great on the big screen.
An interesting Q&A with the director of Mongol Sergei Bodrov and the historian, author and Genghis Khan authority, John Man.
Sergei, did you spend much time talking to John before making the movie? SB: We were in touch of course before the movie. I knew about John's book and I think it was the best book I'd read about Genghis Khan.
And have you always maintained an interest in Genghis and this period of history, or were you inspired specifically by John's book?
SB: I would very much like to say that it was all down to John [laughs]! But really for me, in the early years, I have always been fascinated. Genghis is a very unpopular figure in Russia, one of the most unpopular, and we still blame the Mongols for all our problems in my country! Later I began to get a little suspicious of this attitude, so I did more research, to see if he was really that bad. I didn't ever believe that he was born as a monster, and I found some interesting, and very different, points of view. It's fascinating and I really learned about his younger years. As a child and as a youth he suffered a lot. So it's a great human story, very emotional and touching, and it got my interest. So four years ago I decided that I would make the movie.
It's interesting that Russians still blame their problems on someone from 800 years ago…
SB: It's very unfair, I think. But people love to blame other people for their failings. The historians didn't want to say that we were weak, unfit, had bad commanders, poor soldiers; we had to blame the enemy, to make him big and to make him powerful.
John, do you think there's a changing attitude towards Genghis in the West?
JM:There is a changing perception, and that comes from the greater availability of the old foundation epic, The Secret History of the Mongols. There's an edition published in English by Folio, by a Mongolian author, and it's a very accessible translation, although there's still a lot of work to be done on this - on understanding the language, the terminology, and the nature of all the relationships. But what's so interesting about the Secret History is that it concentrates on the emotional and psychological development of Genghis Khan. It was written just after his death [he died in 1227] and what the authors were trying to do was to explain this explosion that happened in their own lifetime, and they went not for the campaigns but the origins of it all: telling the story of a man who was a down-and-out, a castaway, if you like, with no defender, hunted. And from these humble origins come the greatest land empire that history's ever seen. The whole epic is rooted in character and in the romance of his first marriage.
And the film really seizes on that relationship with his first wife, Borte. Sergei, you seem to make more of their relationship than The Secret History does…
JM:Ah, well, that's because Sergei's film only goes up to the point of Genghis becoming emperor. In The Secret History of the Mongols, their relationship is reflected that way up until he becomes emperor. It's only after that point that she recedes more into the background.
SB: It was very interesting because The Secret History of the Mongols, well I disagree with John a little, in that it is only one side of an original source. I mean that a writer put it down and some pieces might be missing, so it's already edited, and bits will have gone for political reasons. So for me I wanted to fill the gaps, to guess a few things. For example, there is a piece in the movie, an important scene, where he is in captivity. He is captured, but the Mongolian historians disagree with this furiously. There are some periods in his life where he appears to be missing, but they think it's impossible. John found some source, which suggested…
JM:I did find a Chinese source, which contained one line. A Chinese who went on a mission to the Mongols from China after Genghis' death heard a story that he was in captivity for ten years and then escaped and came back home. That's not in The Secret History, which contains a story of his capture by another tribe, but not this particular episode. In the film, Sergei has him captured by the Tanguts, who were a powerful people in what is modern-day China.
SB: And the Tanguts don't exist anymore so they don't mind me using them for this chapter!
JM:It's interesting because the Chinese source says that his period in captivity made him understand what he was up against when he eventually invaded China. He knew the political system and that motivation remains in Sergei's film.
And what were the challenges of adapting the elements of Genghis' early life from The Secret History? You mention the fact that it is not a totally reliable source, Sergei…
JM:Well, you're right, there is an agenda behind it. The book is out to show that Genghis is divinely inspired and that there's a divine purpose behind the explosion of this empire. It looks for the roots of that empire in his character, and some things are suppressed. So if he was imprisoned that might not have been seen as suitable material for inclusion. Genghis would've expunged a lot of these stories.
SB: What I find interesting is that the story about his death, for example, has become a real folktale in Mongolia. In fact, John starts his book with the folktale about how he died. It's still unknown. His death had to be kept secret because he was in the middle of a campaign against China and he didn't want his enemies to know.
In the film, Genghis has a very interesting relationship with his blood brother, Jamukha. Is their relationship in some way symbiotic of all relationships on the steppes, showing that trust is uneasy, even between close friends?
JM:Yes, it's a strange combination of trust and betrayal. That's crucial to the film and crucial to this society.
SB: Also, it's interesting that in Mongolia a blood brother is more important than your real brother. When you become a blood brother, it's a terribly important thing. It's both personal and political. It linked tribes not cultures.
Sergei, the story goes that you planned this film as the first part of a trilogy…
SB: When I started this project I called it Mongol Part 1. I was thinking like Tarantino with Kill Bill Vol. 1 [laughs]. And when I finished the film people asked me when I was going to make Part 2 and I said 'No way. I don't want to do any more.' The first production was very tough and difficult, so I didn't want to do it. But then time passed and I thought that maybe I should like to tell some more of his story. So now I am tempted skip Part 2 and just do Part 3, the end of his life, where it's quite dark.
You find that part of his story more interesting than all the big military campaigns?
SB: Absolutely, it's much more personal. Those big conquests are just battle after battle. Of course, there would be battles in this film, but I think we'd look more at the challenges facing him at the end of his life, who will be Khan after him, and things like that.
JM:In fact the succession was a crucial part of his leadership. A major factor in bad leadership is trying to cling to power, but here we have Genghis thinking beyond himself. He was a tool in the hands of heaven, and that in turn made him tolerant of other religions. There was a lot of destruction, of the Muslim world and north China - it took them a generation to recover their economy - but it was for a greater purpose!
SB: Also it's interesting how ready he was to hear advice, because his close advisors realised that with empire he could leave people to self-govern and just raise large taxes. He wasn't out to destroy religion.
Variety compared your film to the work of Akira Kurosawa and David Lean. Is either of those filmmakers an inspiration to you?
SB: Kurosawa, yes of course. We wanted to go back to real action like him, and you have to watch David Lean films when you want to do big epic films. But many filmmakers inspire me. I have an interest in Asia - the faces, the space, the steppes, the deserts and the mountains. I'm from Russia but I didn't grow up in the forests. The Central Asian landscape is immediately stirring. You can see huge landscapes, horizons and then the small figures of the people. The Mongolian people, like any culture, they like movie productions coming. We didn't destroy anything, so people were very intrigued. We had a crew of 600 people out there.
Your leading man, Tadanobu Asano, brings great stillness and grace to the role of Genghis. Is that what you asked of him, Sergei?
SB: Absolutely. He is unusual, handsome, not physically strong but is possessed of great inner strength that you can see shine through his person. It was interesting to watch him being silent. I have seen many of his movies, like Zatoichi, of course and he's an amazing actor. But I'm not sure any of these characters immediately link to him Genghis Khan, but for me he seemed perfect.
JM:I think it's remarkable that it's all shot in Mongol, with a Japanese lead, a Chinese second lead, all speaking in Mongol. It's wonderful.
As a historian, John, wanted impressed you most about the film?
JM:The sense of authenticity. Sergei knows the history well enough to manipulate it to make a movie. This is an art form, but it doesn't get away from the need for authenticity. He sticks to The Secret History and other sources but knows enough to cut through the complexities and to compress. So that combined with the authenticity of the relationships between the characters is what really comes through. It surprised me.
Making films in Russia today, is it easier or more difficult than under the Communist regime? On the one hand, there must be more freedom, but on the other, less state finance…
SB: Of course, and in the next few years there will be less and less freedom. But I'm lucky enough to know very independent people to help raise the finance for this kind of production. We started, we stopped, it wasn't easy. When you have a good story you can find some enthusiasts. The government though I think will ensure less freedom in the future.
JM: It's like childbirth, isn't it Sergei? If the product is good, you forget about the pain!