Just over a decade ago, Russian director Sergei Bodrov made his mark on the West with his Academy Award-nominated movie Prisoner of the Mountains, which transplanted a Tolstoy novella for children to Russia's war with Chechnya. 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 (2000), a mob thriller he co-wrote and produced starring 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 Mr. Ed. And in 2005, Bodrov walked onto the troubled set of Nomad: The Warrior, after the original director, Ivan Passer, ran out of money.
In response to all that — and to the tragic death in an avalanche of his son Sergei Bodrov Jr., a star of Russian television 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 in L.A., 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 The 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 (Zatoichi, 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 in 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.
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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's side.'" Bodrov was more upset by the Mongolian reaction he met with when he came 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."
Even then, the two-year shoot was fraught with colorful obstacles. When the $10 million budget, funded mostly with Russian and Kazakh money, ran out, the 600-man crew was put on hold for a year and the movie ended up costing $18 million. Bodrov learned the hard way that the Chinese, though very hard-working, tend to say, "Yes, this can be done" when they mean, "No, it can't." The Russian crew refused to eat with chopsticks, so knives and forks had to be imported to a very remote set. The shy little Mongol boy who played Temudgin as a child turned into a little Khan himself after some strategic spoiling. Bodrov's Kazakh assistant, who fell in love with Khulan Chuluun, the beautiful Mongolian student who plays Khan wife, grew ungovernably jealous of her love scenes with leading man Asano and had to be banished to a local hotel. Later, the couple were treated to a splashy wedding on opening night in Kazakhstan, where, of course, Genghis Khan is a hero and Mongol was rapturously received, in part, as an antidote to a certain Kazakh-bashing smash hit by Sacha Baron Cohen.
"I like Borat and I think Sacha is a genius. In fact, I had an idea to invite him to opening night," says Bodrov, who is partly based in Kazakhstan and has strong ties to the region, where he has a grown daughter. "But I can understand my Kazakh friends who took Borat so personally and generated a lot of conspiracy theories about who paid him to make the movie. I said, 'Okay, guys, take it easy, it's comedy. He's laughing at Americans. Let's shoot a different movie and people will change their minds."
I don't know about that, but in the West, reviews for Mongol have been generally positive. "That's not a good sign," says Bodrov, laughing. "I don't want them to say it's intelligent." He's more concerned that the movie is getting a smaller release than outgoing Picturehouse head Bob Berney, who believes it can generate more revenue even than the company's other surprise hit, Pan's Labyrinth, had wished for. Still, Bodrov is once again fielding "huge" offers from Hollywood, though he's determined not to repeat his painful past history with the studios. "I work here, but it depends on the project and the people," he says vehemently. "If they give me control, maybe we can talk about it."