The Conquerors: Nomad and Mongol

Intro

So, the mission of With Eyes East is to promote Asian cinema and culture, and a very easy way for me to do that is to look at movies which are already cultural outreaches, movies like The Raid: Redemption from Indonesia or Furie from Vietnam. I don’t have to crane my neck; in fact, I might only have to look as far as an episode of The Amazing Race. I’m gonna stop you right there, Phil, because I’ve had my share of tet a tet with CBS copyright lawyers in the past. Well, just one; he thought my name was Josh. But basically, Phil’s saying that KazakhFilm is one of Kazakhstan’s major studios, responsible for a Ghengis Khan movie nominated for an Oscar. And I said, “Bullshit,” because I know Nomad: The Warrior was not nominated for an Oscar. After cursory research, I discovered I’m half-correct. KazakhFilm’s first blockbuster production was Nomad: The Warrior, co-directed by Sergei Bodrov, and it was submitted to the Academy as Kazakhstan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. Two years later, Bodrov returned with a movie called Mongol — the one actually about Ghengis Khan — and this was indeed nominated for that same award. So today, I want to take a look at what goes into film as ambassadorship, with these two Kazakh films as our example. How did they successfully introduce an international audience to the culture of… who?

Russia/Mongolia/Kazakhstan Difference

So we’re talking about Kazakh films about Mongolia directed by a Russian guy, and never mind that one of these movies stars a bunch of Americans. I know what America is, you know, insofar as. How do the rest of these countries break down? Is this some sort of all-star Central Asian supergroup? Have a look at a map here. The territory of Kazakhstan is home to nomadic tribes like the ones which gave rise to the Kazakhs, who are a Turkic people. And this territory would come to be invaded by Mongols, and later by Russians. So it’s kind of a melting pot of cultures. 3% of people living in Mongolia today are Kazakhs, their largest minority, and Russians are Kazakhstan’s largest minority, and so on. This is what happens with geographical neighbors — also violence. It’s also how you get, for example, a Kazakh warrior named Ablai Khan, descendent of Janybek Khan, son of Barak, whose father was the grandson of a descendant of Ghengis Khan. Fellow like that might identify himself as of the Ghengis Khan lineage, and he does so in our first movie tonight, Nomad: The Warrior.

Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

Let me tell you right away, this movie checks a lot of boxes for me: voiceover narration in the beginning — evincing an immediate sort of storytelling insecurity soon realized — two narrators, in fact — doubling down — this being boxes in the negative column — unexpected choice of genre, silly dialogue, and that fast-forward thing through all the important parts. This all sounds very familiar, as most of these criticisms I also leveled against the last movie discussed here, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. And yet, unlike that film, I can’t bring myself to say I dislike this one. I can’t. There’s just something about Nomad. It’s charming, like that actor I really like, Jay Hernandez. That dude is pure charisma. I’m sure Tom Selleck as Magnum PI was good, but when I think about Selleck now, I just see this, so I got to think Hernandez is an upgrade. I mean, look at that smile. There’s so much about Nomad I like, starting with the eclectic cast they put together. So this is a movie about Khazakh people, right? You got Jason Scott Lee, an American of Hawaiian and Chinese descent, the man himself Mark Dacascos, an American of Hawaiian and Chinese, Filipino, Spanish, Irish and Japanese descent, the main character is played by a Mexican actor named Kuno Becker, and his best friend is played by… are you fucking kidding me?

This is gonna be a recurring theme, and casting is only gonna get stranger as we continue. But for now, we have this very global group speaking English or dubbed English in the international version, and maybe that’s the perfect analogy for the film itself. As an American, I’m trained to see a cast like this as “incorrect,” but I really like all of these guys. I mean, that’s actually Jay Hernandez. Although what is up with that moustache, dude? For example, I’d be conflicted if they cast almost any other white person in the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie. As it stands, I know it’s incorrect, and I really don’t like her.

Between The Warrior Queen of Jhansi and Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, I feel like I’ve watched a lot of battle montages, with the slow-motion and the fading in and out. I don’t really understand why this happens, because you have all the extras and the horses there. Why not show us what’s happening instead of teasing it? Or telling us, with narration. As we saw with King Hu, deliberate pacing and situating the action can make a tremendous difference, and for a big military battle like in Nomad, the inverse introduces an additional complication in the form of tactics. Because warfare on the steppe is so different than what we’re used to seeing in European or East Asian movies of this vintage, I would’ve thought there’d be an emphasis on it, and as a result, a closer attention to the logistics and strategy.

Coincidentally, and one of the reasons I bring this up, I’ve been reading this pop culture military history blog that examines, for example, the Siege of Gondor or the various Game of Thrones battles. It’s highly educational, and often marked by the refrain of how a depiction of strategy can reflect character. For example, the tactics at Gondor were so terrible in the movie version of Return of the King in part because of a compressed timeline, and as a consequence, Denethor becomes a mad king right away, being more competent in the book. For Nomad: The Warrior, we need to see Mansur, later Ablai Khan, as capable, and what he’s capable of is based on the circumstance — in this case, winning the war. His strategy? Wait for reinforcements, lead a prayer circle, and then ride out and fight himself. In doing so, he’d be sacrificing access to the big picture, and we don’t see him delegate command. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because we fade out.

If this is a problem, it’s only a problem once, because although this sequence suggests the kind of milieu I was expecting from a movie like this, it is not a war movie. What’s important isn’t the battle itself, but that the battle was fought. This is the story of a future leader who unites disparate tribes and we don’t see that uniting; it’s achieved through symbolic means. There’s no diplomatic mission, he goes on a hero’s journey. That’s what we have here: an old-fashioned adventure. Something like spills and chills, almost theme-park, or like movies that become theme park attractions like The Mummy Returns or Waterworld. I respect that, because it’s a choice that’s made, and the film is consistent because of it.

It’s grand and earnest, and you understand that the moment you see that big Jason Scott Lee smile. You’ll notice also that the movie is absolutely gorgeous, even in standard-definition, with vast natural beauty, finely-detailed costumes, elaborate architecture, and a deep frame full of activity — and dust, like a Ridley Scott movie. And the lighting, too, even outdoors, manages to catch the glint in every eye, through which we can see Nomad’s very big heart. In combination with the acting and the honestly overbearing but lovely score, I was totally swept up in the emotions of the story while at the same recognizing how much was missing. I mean, we have major structural issues here. It begins and ends by the first hour and then resets itself for hour two, with plenty of smaller stops and starts throughout. Plot points are instantly revealed rather than built up to, so you never know where we’re going next or what the big picture is until the third act. And there are enough plot holes along the way that the biggest dramatic moment is literally contrived. And you’re left wondering if it was ultimately necessary.

And then there’s that dialogue. Of course, the non-negotiable part of its genre is historical epic, and that brings with it big historical dialogue, which again, I do appreciate. I recently watched this awful movie called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywaler, and the dialogue in that was not only really bad it was atonal. This is supposed to be mythic. Why does everybody talk as if they’re watching the movie they’re in? So, yes, I give the pass to clumsy lines like this: “The moon has a scent?” because it’s, again, consistent and larger-than-life. Too large, perhaps, but let’s not say the filmmakers season all these ingredients correctly. They’re there, and that’s enough for me.

Mongol (2007)

Although maybe I should feel pandered to as an American because Nomad was swiping a lot of Hollywood language, I feel. This is, of course, a logical approach to marketing a film to foreign audiences up to their eyeballs in American cinema. But maybe if you don’t originate that language, you find yourself playing telephone trying to make a point. The thrust of Nomad becomes cloudy, and so we might say the tools in Sergei Bodrov’s hands are blunted. What a difference two years can make. If Nomad was good in spite of itself, Mongol is really, actually frickin’ awesome. This movie is good. And in identifying the nature of what must be revision, it seems to me the story here is simplicity, but I’d rather somehow conjugate the word “elemental” into this sentence. Because our popular view of the Mongol horde is sort of horde-like, the kind what slaughters Conan the Barbarian’s mom in the beginning — “elemental” sounds better.

In the beginning of this film, young Ghengis Khan, or Temüjin, is traveling with his father and they encounter another clan. There’s this concern about the actual day-to-day living on the steppe, the sorts of life-or-death politics expressed through customs that were largely present only in dialogue in Nomad. Here, we see it because it’s built into the story. Now we’re talking. However, with this, I don’t mean to say that everything in a movie should be simple — I feel like that’s a screenwriting and film criticism trap — in this case, it helps solve the problem I’ve been having with historical dramas, about relatability. By boiling down a depiction of foreign culture to its universal aspects, we can sooner achieve that most necessary emotional connection. You say you’re gonna kill me when I’m grown up, I understand what the next moves are gonna be, and thus nobody behaves as if they’re from the moon.

We can see this in action because a lot of the plot points expressed in Nomad resurface in Mongol, so the movies in tandem become a screenwriting lesson. For example, both movies center on a tragic relationship between two blood brothers, which is two guys who swear a blood oath to one another, not necessarily brothers by blood. In Nomad, it’s Mansur and Jay Hernandez, with that friggin’ moustache, and in Mongol, it’s Temüjin and Jamukha. The problem with Nomad’s blood brothership is that we only ever see them be best friends as kids, and briefly. Conflict between them is introduced the moment we see them as adults — it’s over a woman. Temüjin and Jamukha spend a lot of time together as adults, and each scene has weight. They’re separated and reunited, and then they fight together. All kinds of emotions and experiences. Their eventual rivalry grows out of the circumstances, and as a bonus, for reasons beyond their control. It’s that rare instance where your sympathies are split between protagonist and antagonist, and that’s a more honest approach to story, but granted, I say this as someone who can’t stand when they try to make you adore the main character because he’s so fucking cool and haunted and almost never played by Julie Estelle. That’s right — shout-out to my only even remotely successful video. That’s all you, Julie.

That being said, Mongol is still an evolutionary step, with plot points materializing out of nowhere. Fewer this time, but for example, the movie stops dead after Temüjin escapes the Tangut Kingdom and spends time with his family. There’s melancholy in these scenes, because he’s been away for so long and needs to be introduced to his daughter, but I wonder if his happiness here could’ve been bitten by foreboding instead. His wife’s name is Börte, by the way, and Börte tells him that the Mongols are up to no good, so he rides off to set things right. I’m thinking, if she gives him that information immediately upon his release, the nature of these scenes changes dramatically. For all he knows, these are his last moments with them. But maybe that understanding is inherent anyway. I do find it interesting that a lot of his decisions, and subsequently, plot points, happen because she gives him a direction, like in this scene. In the end, he can’t help but recognize that she chose him during the choosing of the bride, not the other way around.

Of course, one of the fast facts you learn about Ghengis Khan is that he fathered half of Asia, which is why we all look the same, and I didn’t learn this until afterward, but Mongol was meant to be the first of a trilogy, which is ironic. This first third of his story is maybe the only time Ghengis Khan could be depicted as sympathetic, or monogamous. Now, does Ghengis Khan require litigation in the court of public opinion? Ooh, not ours — it’s like a shark tank over here. I think people generally understand that he’s more complicated than any legend suggests, but through his character, we develop an understanding of his world and again, can make judgments which might surprise us, and I think that’s a very healthy exercise. Also, this greater sophistication of filmic language helps one achieve lofty goals like sympathy for a mass murderer. And when you’ve reached that height, something Americans struggle with even today (Joker), you can pretty much tell us anything. Sergei, that is real power.

You can, for example, tell me that this Japanese fella is actually Mongolian, and I will say how high. Because you know what? It’s Tadanobu Asano, eminent scary/sexy guy, perfect for a role like this. That’s right, Ichi the Killer himself. Well, actually, Ichi is this guy, but that’s not really cool like a Chelsea grin and bleach blonde hair. Asano may not be Mongolian, but he’s a really good actor. I’ve only seen him in a handful of movies, 47 Ronin among them, so I was kind of blown away. Again, it’s all in the eyes. And maybe I’m harping on this too much, but if these movies are educational envoys, what’s the lesson we’re taking away? Partly, that Kazakhstan is a diverse area, so nobody is out of place, but when it comes to Americans learning things, I mean, let’s just say they might see your lateral casting pass and ask “just how out of place can somebody be?”

The Conqueror (1956)

If I were to tell you that this film, the very last of the year, was the worst I’d watched for the YouTube channel, well, I’d be correct. And I do love being correct, so what’s this emptiness? This is a vision of Mongolia through the eyes of 1950s Americans, specifically Howard Hawks and John Wayne. But even before those facts filter in and ruin things, it’s real simple: The Conqueror is the worst kind of movie because it is inert. You look at it at 20 minutes in, look at it  an hour and 20 minutes in, you see the same thing. The image never changes, and the story is so murky that plot progression becomes a distant dream, like winning the lottery. If you’re like me, you’re curious about this movie, so it’s not fair to withhold the essence of the experience just because I don’t want to experience it again, but I have to reiterate, this movie is so horrible. I mean, where do you even begin?

Well, to some that may be obvious: whitewashing. Now, we’ve all done it. However, because this is indeed that movie where John Wayne plays Ghengis Khan, it’s probably one of the most famous examples of whitewashing, with both an iconic actor and a real-life historical figure, but for that reason, it feels different. First of all, it’s different-feeling when there is no perception on the part of the filmmakers of an Asian audience. It’s a tree falling in the forest, though certainly there were Asians in the audience back then and there are even Asians in the movie here. You just got to squint — actually, don’t do that. But second, it’s almost like if you’re gonna go, go all the way. That perhaps there’s a threshold where whitewashing, so brazen, becomes something else. This movie was famously filmed in the irradiated Utah desert, so it looks like an American western, the costumes and architecture and dance routines are a patchwork of foreignness, and of course, the only one who looks more ridiculous running around here than the people with their eyes asquint is the one extremely white woman. It’s absurd, it’s like Renn Faire or cosplay — offensive and low-effort cosplay.

There’s no way for us to see John Wayne playing Ghengis Khan or any character and not see John Wayne. Again, this is the John Wayne playing Ghengis Khan movie — that’s what you came to see. So it’s like, John Wayne should play as many different kinds of characters as possible, and Ghengis Khan should have several cinematic portrayals. So it’s not really racist because you can’t call fate itself racist. There’s no authorship here. And in fact, when he just puts on a costume and makes his face Asian, starts talking like a moron, it’s so cheap that the production itself doesn’t feel published. Like, this is the fraternity photo that TMZ digs up when the guy runs for congress. It wasn’t meant to be seen, and in fact, Howard Hawks tried to destroy this movie following its release to negative though gentle reception. If you go look for it now, it isn’t streaming anywhere. I had to get a used, physical copy — I had to touch something like a fucking animal — and it’s a bare-bones disc. The movie plays when you put the disc in and plays again when the movie ends, just so you can tell it to fuck off, I guess.

I understand that this movie is a product of its time, but that in itself is kind of a problem. I’m not gonna draw broad conclusions about the era in which this film was produced based on this one movie any more than I’d like future generations to judge my era off of The Rise of Skywalker — we did not all talk like that — but there are two truths I’ll present to you now: one, this movie existed before the advent of culture as we experience it today, and two, the further you go back in time, the more normal racism and sexism become. Basically, my postulation is that characters like this is how you cultivate sexism in eager psyches. If you believe this is what women are like, then yeah, I totally get why you hate women. This is one of the worst characters I’ve ever seen. And she’s not even Börte this time, she’s Bortai. I guess Börte didn’t sound foreign enough, or maybe they also saw that Simpsons episode.

Surprisingly, The Conqueror shares similar themes and plot elements from Nomad and Mongol, like the blood brother rivalry. This time, Temujin simply believes Jamuga betrayed him, like, a dozen times, so the bro gives himself a death sentence at the end, and his last act is to tell us in posthumous voiceover that indeed Ghengis Khan fathered half the world. In doing so, he makes a reference to Bortai’s durable loins, and that’s exactly what I needed to be thinking about at the end of a horrendous two hours. And that’s the other piece repeated here, the conflict over a woman. Bortai. The twist, though, is a kind of mystical invocation, that this woman is cursed. A man’s lust for the fairer sex brings about his downfall, and this is a lot. Would boggle the mind were the mind attendance, because first of all, it’s not a metaphor. The mom — “My Mother” — comes in and says “this woman will be our ruin,” and that’s only because Temujin stole her from a clan leader whose life he spared and she’s the daughter of the guy who killed his dad. She’s not being poetic, you idiot, it’s like her name was just Helen and you brought the “of Troy.”

But more importantly, this conflict should engage character, but it doesn’t. The onset of a cursed woman, whose cursedness is heralded by prophecy, that’s classic setup for tragedy. But in the end, Ghengis Khan becomes Ghengis Khan, as you might imagine. So no lessons are learned, the character does not change. And I understand this is like I’m asking the dog to play piano, but this is technically a failure in the famously failed film, so I have to point it out? Do you need to know why you’re not gonna watch the movie, were it a convenient possibility anyway? This wouldn’t be the first reason, but it is compelling nonetheless. The trudging toward this non-endgame is brutal — repetitive and deserty as mentioned — but also the burner for our delicious stew which is the worst character ever. Bortai goes from lusty eyes to hatred and betrayal to remorse to falling in love — in large part without Temujin’s anyway violent input. Just on her own she goes through this whole arc and it’s probably more believable that way, given his eventually successful courtship predicates on the classic “no becomes yes.” If I’m gonna watch a rape scene, I’m gonna ask what was the point? And not just “what was the point of the movie,” because bad movies don’t need to fumble the point to be bad, but when you start with such proclamation, doesn’t that suggest all the yelling is on purpose? Because it is anyway! But then it doesn’t matter!

It’s one of those movies where you have these all floating themes, like revenge and betrayal and brotherhood, but it’s just as true it has themes of desert and horses. And anyway, characters don’t so much speak to one another as into the airspace around the other’s head with declarative, grammatically backward statements, and so because the movie is full of this talking and about things which ultimately come to nothing, you just feel like it never shuts the fuck up. Why does he call his mother “My Mother”? But if I start asking questions, I’m never gonna stop. Like, when it comes to this John Wayne Ghengis Khan creature, how am I supposed to respond, and who am I supposed to respond as? How did 1950s white moviegoers react to the character? How did Howard Hawks want 1950s white moviegoers to react? Because when he rapes Bortai, I don’t know if I’m supposed to see him as heroic because he’s John Wayne, or as yellow peril because he’s Ghengis Khan. But if that’s the case, why make a Ghengis Khan movie? Is the movie racist on purpose or just accidentally? I mean, just look at the poster — I’m not bullshitting here: “I am Temujin, barbarian, I fight, I love, I conquer, like a barbarian.” That’s modern comedic timing.

Would John Wayne, exalted American hero archetype, play an evil Asian guy, one who sexually conquers a white woman? Isn’t that anxiety the very premise of American racism against Asian men? These are not rhetorical questions, by the way. I’m having a hard time here. If you’re an American film scholar, please shoot me an email — what was the historical context behind The Conqueror’s production? I literally can’t even imagine the answers, because the product we’re looking at here feels like the consequence of accidental automation, like an inventor created a chemical formula to print filmstock without exposure. The world of the movie, the endless Southwestern desert, has very little feedback — the video game term. Like the whole world is numb. Look at this: the acting is so passive, he doesn’t even know how to react here. (clip). It’s pure artifice. It’s got the look of a theatrical production both in sets and composition, the yellowface is mind-defying and yellows with a character’s evilness, and watch him throw this spear. (clip). John Matrix would be proud.

Conclusion

Look, if you’re going for authenticity, then yeah, I would’ve loved to have seen Mongolian actors play the main characters, and ditto for Khazak characters. I mean, we all know who the most famous Khazak character is, right? But more than that, with all this, it’s like we’re sometimes guided along certain patterns of thinking. Those 1950s Americans saw something universal in Ghengis Khan’s story and they wanted to reproduce aspects of it, which made for a liberal adaptation, to say the least. All of its problems, from storytelling to casting, are slowly weeded out by the time we get to Mongol. The storytelling becomes truer to history — there’s trust in the material. It doesn’t need to be Hollywood, it needs to be the story it’s telling. And granted, I’m sure there are examples of historically-accurate movies that suck, and make for more trees falling in forests. This is a theory — about cultural outreach, which I think is important. And as we close out the first year of this YouTube channel, I want to say that this isn’t generally how I want to attend to the mission of promoting Asian cinema and culture, by framing the good with the bad, talking about racism and things like that. But for now, these three movies show us the infinite possibility in depicting a people — that it can be so wrong, or even wrong and good. It’s important to get it right — and that’s helped or hindered by every tool in the tool box — because ignorance, whether or not you think it’s wrong, is at the very least undignified.


2 thoughts on “The Conquerors: Nomad and Mongol

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