Genghis Khan robbed

Odnyam Odsuren as the young Temudjin

So Mongol has lost out to The Counterfeiters in the Oscars and I’m aggrieved. Mind you, Mongol was the only nominee in the Best Foreign Film category that I’d seen or indeed knew the first thing about, so I’m slightly biased. But I loved it. It’s a co-production with contributions from Khazakstan, in whose name it was entered in the Awards, Mongolia, which supplied the theme and most of the locations, and Russia, which supplied the director Sergei Bodrov and most of the production team.

Anyone who has spent time in a non-English speaking country will have noticed that the locals generally watch dubbed versions of foreign films. Even the intelligentsia are resigned to dubbing, and if they don’t admit they find subtitles hard work, they’ll rationalise dubbing by insisting that the translations and voice-overs of their local writers and actors are superior to the original anyway.

By contrast, English speaking cinema audiences generally don’t like dubbing. We find it comical, and, in any case, in a world where our own language is ubiquitous, we enjoy the opportunity to hear what other languages sound like. Part of the reason why we don’t mind subtitles is that we’re used to them. But of course there has to be a reason why this came about in the first place, and it’s obvious enough: thanks to Hollywood, most popular films are in English anyway; so the only foreign films shown in English speaking countries are art films; and people who watch foreign art films generally want the whole experiece, including the original language.

Mel Gibson took this preference for authenticity (or at least for an impression of authenticity) one step further, by scripting a film (The Passion of the Christ) in an extinct language. Then with Apocalypo he did something in-between, making a film about the ancient Mayans in contemporary Yucatan Mayan. Whether Gibson could have caste the film with English-speakers possessing the right physiognomic specifications, I have no idea, but it seems clear that he preferred to use real ‘Mayans’ speaking their native tongue.

Mongol is in the same category as Apocalypto. The actors are mostly Mongolians, and to hear them and watch them you would think they are just going about their usual business — as they hurtle across the steppes on horseback, tend their cattle, and feud with other clans. Two of the principals, however, are foreigners: the charismatic Tadanobu Asano, who plays Temudjin, and Honglei Sun, who plays his blood brother and nemesis Jamukha, are Japanese and Chinese respectively. Without being any kind of connoisseur of Mongolian pronunciation, I marvel at the achievement of these two in delivering convincing performances in such a little-known language. According to a researcher at Troppo’s Japan Bureau, Asano is quoted on MovieWalker as saying:

Four months before filming started I began to study Mongolian intensively. I had my teacher, a Mongolian, record my actual lines on a CD that I listened to devotedly. The pronunciation is pretty difficult. Shooting of the film took place in inner Mongolia three and a half years ago, for one and a half months, then there was a gap of one and a half years with no filming. During that time I kept listening to my CD and practising the pronunciation, but one week before filming recommenced the whole script was changed. That was really tough.

According to our researcher, “Asano also had to learn to ride a horse for this film! Apparently he was nervous a lot of the time because the horse would cease to obey him whenever his riding coach disappeared from sight, and it would take off at full speed over the grassland, where there were lots of mole holes to trip them up. Apparently he was always nervous, and glad that despite incurring many minor injuries, he never held up shooting with a major one.”

Modern Mongolian may or may not have much in common with the version spoken in Genghis Khan’s time. But most of the Western audience wouldn’t know Mongol from Turkish anyway: all that matters is that it sounds ‘about right’, because if the actors spoke English, or something sounding suspiciously like Swedish, it would spoil the illusion.

And what a fabulous illusion the whole thing is. If this film had been made in the 1950s, even in the 1980s for that matter, it would be plain camp — Double Take material at best. But that time has passed. At some point in the last few years, directors and cinematographers have quietly perfected the art of historical recreation with flawless verisimilitude, removing all traces of cheesy artifice, and depicting ancient lifestyles, ceremonies and battles exactly as they would really have appeared. In short, Mongol is indistinguishable from a documentary made from real archival footage, had the technology existed to make a documentary in 1186. Apart from the pristine tents and costumes, the uniformly photogenic characters, the general lack of filth and squalor, and the elegantly staged and scripted action, that is. But you know what I mean.

The narrative probably strays considerably from documented fact, but it’s a plausible and gripping story. If you liked Cave of the Yellow Dog, but wished it had a couple fewer scenes of children playing with yurts, and just a bit more murder and mayhem, then this is the film for you. Readers who don’t like surprises, even pleasant ones, can find a synopsis and a trailer here. The film is the first part of a planned trilogy about Genghis Khan, originally named Tumudjin. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a boy who triumphs over cruelty and injustice, but instead of taking the normal path of bloodthirsty vengeance, he decides that history has chosen him to put an end to his people’s pointless and destructive feuding, and forge a nation. This is all done pretty convincingly, with the added attraction of magnificent landscapes and atmospherics. And then there’s the moving love story of Temudjn and his resilient bride Borte, a strong female part in an otherwise blokey story. She is a wise and independent character, made credible by good scripting and very natural performances from two Mongolian novices.

They will probably give Mongol an M classification when it’s released next month (I saw it at the Open Air Cinema), but it could almost get away with a PG rating. I had no regrets about taking my eight-year-old. Whatever potential a film about Genghis Khan might hold for graphic torture and vivisection, the battle scenes and other violence are stylised to the point of being post-modern. And there is the lowest of low-key sex scenes, but it’s indispensible to the story.

For more on Mongol, here’s a favourable but excessively long review and an uncharitably harsh one.

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derrida derider
derrida derider
16 years ago

You can get unintentionally hilarious results both from dubbing and subtitling. For dubbing, try watching “Iron Chef” on SBS. For subtitling, have a quick look at this.

Ken Parish
16 years ago

Not really apropos cinema, but there are several reasons some people like subtitles. In our household we habitually watch TV with the subtitles feature on and the sound turned down fairly low. It allows those who want to watch the TV to do so without dominating the room with blaring sound. However, visitors seem to find this habit quite weird.

16 years ago

You might be over generalizing a bit with “foreign country”. The French often watch films (not TV) with subtitles (there is a split between cinema chains — those that don’t show just Hollywood or the French equivalent fodder don’t tend to dub films). Similarly, subtitles can be seen in HK too (and not just English ones).

Joshua Gans
16 years ago

I’m sure you’re right, Conrad. Then there’s the Dutch and Scandinavians — I guess they don’t go in for dubbing much either.

Francis Xavier Holden
16 years ago

Ken – We often watch SBS (Rex, Unit One) with sound down and subtitles blaring. [btw anyone notice Wallander was back the other night?]

I had the dubious pleasure some time ago of watching the Mel Brookes Gibson – The Passion of the Christ in a cinema in Taiwan. Less than 5% of Taiwanese are Christian of any kind, the theatre was big enough for 300 but had about 40 attendees and judging by their reaction very few of those there were Christian. The film was subtitled both in Mandarin and English.

The Worst of Perth
16 years ago

It’s hard to imagine anyone doing GhK better than John Wayne, but I’ll give it a look on your recc.

16 years ago

Portugal and Spain are an interesting study in contrasts re dubbing/subtitling. Under Franco the list of allowed foreign films was small, and they were dubbed to ensure control of the message. In Portugal Salazar obviously wasn’t as concerned, and they are subtitled. perhaps coincidentally, english is much more widely spoken in portugal than spain.