GENGHIS KHAN (2018) review

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There have been more than a few films made about the great 12th-century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan – the most successful and closest to reality probably being Sergei Brodov’s Mongol (2007) with Tadanobu Asano – but none that have offered such a wild fantasy spin on his rise to power as Hasi Chaolu’s Genghis Khan. William Chan stars as Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler”), a young Mongol boy whose romance with Borte (Lin Yun), a girl from a neighboring tribe, is abruptly interrupted when his father is killed during a battle by Kuchuru (Hu Jun), an evil warlord. But after being beheaded in combat, the warlord is resurrected by the love of his life, the witch Dodai (Zhang Xinyi). However, the resurrection comes at a price: Dodai is now hostage to the King of Hell, who thus has Kuchuru do his bidding: soon, an alignment of planets will signal the perfect moment for him to lead an army of orcs and skeletons to invade the grasslands of Mongolia. Years pass, and a now grown-up Temujin sets out to find Borte and marry her, but fate as other plans. Like his ancestor Cina, armed with the mighty spear Soledin, the Mongol hero is called to unite the tribes of Mongolia and take the fight for his land into the depths of hell.

In 1956, Howard Hughes and Dick Powell cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan, daubing his mighty American granite visage in yellow make-up, with Utah landscapes doubling for Mongolia. This was The Conqueror. It took more than 60 years, but now a more ridiculous film has finally been made about the great Khan. An obvious bid to cash in on the Chinese popularity of the Warcraft games and film, Hasi Chaolu’s Genghis Khan is an unbelievably schlocky film. That its plot is a mechanical procession of fantasy clichés and overblown epic tropes is secondary to the fact that this is one ugly film to look at. Inner Mongolia has some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and even mediocre epics shot there generally manage a modicum of sweep (for instance Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer and Talgat Temenov’s Kazakh film Nomad (2005), about Genghis Khan descendant Ablai Khan), but for some unfathomable reason, Hasi Chaolu and his team make constant use of unsightly CGI skies which rarely match the light projected onto the ground (itself real), and against which the characters stick out worse than on a Sharknado green screen. It’s a constant eyesore, not helped by horribly crude visual effects: crudely-rendered swarms of birds and armies of skeletons are vomited onto the screen, while the transformation of Hu Jun’s character into a spider creature (with a Hu Jun head) makes it seem like it’s still 2001, and Dwayne Johnson got turned into a big bouncy scorpion just yesterday.

Epic sweep is absent throughout: indeed, Hasi Chaolu has the same grasp on the genre as that which Uwe Boll exhibited in 2007’s In The Name of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Camera angles are awkward, neither classical nor bizarre, and rarely encompassing: this is a comfortably-budgeted film, and yet you’d think it was shot on a dime. Action directing is dire, with stilted fighting edited with no momentum, and a hilarious battle where only the fighters in the foreground actually break a sweat, while everyone in the background obviously flails around without energy; and it doesn’t help that the amateurish sound design is limited to a distant rumble of clanging metal – not exactly evoking the the fury of a world-altering battle. Celebrated director Jean-Jacques Annaud is credited as an artistic contributor to the film, but given that he’s known for classical, well-researched, authentically filmed epics like Seven Years in Tibet, Enemy at the Gates or the recent Mongolia-set Wolf Totem (a triumph in China and probably the reason he was solicited for this film), one wonders if he showed up at all during any stage of the film’s production.

The cast doesn’t save the film. The only advantage to William Chan playing Genghis Khan is that contrary to John Wayne, he doesn’t require the now frowned-upon use of yellowface. Other than that, he looks more like a rich teenager playing dress-up than like one of the greatest conquerors in the history of the world. Hu Jun plays his villain like a yelly, lovestruck, dim-witted puppet, which on the evidence of the rest of the film is probably the result of bad writing and absence of acting directions, rather than the clever subversion of villainous tropes. The lovely Lin Yun spends most of her screen-time in helpless captivity, waiting around in a cave for Temujin to free her, while Li Guangjie has nothing to do with the usually key role of Genghis Khan’s friend and rival Jamukha, memorably portrayed by Sun Honglei in Mongol. Formidable Mongolian actor Basen Zhabu – Guan Yu in John Woo’s Red Cliff and Temujin’s father in Mongol – is a welcome sight but underused. More intriguing are Zhang Xinyi and the striking Christie Chen, as a witch and a warrior respectively, but their five minutes of combined screen-time isn’t enough to bring the film to more than very fleeting life. A sleepy Ni Dahong pops up every now and then as a Shaman guiding Temujin on the path of destiny, and in the incongruous final scene, he’s seen sitting in the Mongolian grassland, leading a full orchestra of Morin khuur players. A shaman and an orchestra contractor.

There are indeed a few pleasant ideas to be gleaned here and there: a vicious dwarf-like creature saunters diabolically throughout the film (before meeting a rather well-deserved death by horse trampling), the underground kingdom of Hell is a derivative but satisfyingly cyclopean vision, and to include evil cheerleaders atop giant elephants during the final battle is a rare touch that’s ridiculous in a nice way. Amusingly, Cha Gan’s score is old-fashioned to the point that it’s right out of a fifties Hollywood swords-and-sandals epic, complete with long-limbed portentously lyrical melodies and glorious exalted wordless choirs. Clearly, the composer didn’t watch the same film as yours truly.

Long Story Short: A risibly schlocky fantasy epic with a William Chan-shaped void at its center, Genghis Khan almost makes one yearn for the days of John Wayne in yellowface. *

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