Tsog Taij is one of the earliest surviving examples of Mongolian cinema, and may represent an instance of me biting off somewhat more than I can chew. Not only do I know very little about Mongolia, but Tsog Taij is a film whose story is at least nominally rooted in the country’s 17th century history, about which I know even less. To compound matters considerably, it’s also a work of propaganda and, as such, is heavily influenced by the nationalist politics of its time. This means that historical veracity likely took a back seat to whatever ideological points needed to be made -- though in which instances that occurred I’d be loathe to speculate. In short, I’m asking that you forgive a little blind groping on my part (no, not of you… I meant that totally metaphorically), because the alternative would be a review made up almost entirely of cut and pasted bits from various Wikipedia articles.
Our hero here, Tsog Taij, was indeed a real Mongolian prince, but I imagine that he was chosen as a protagonist less for his objective accomplishments than for his rhetorical utility as an enemy of Tibetan Buddhism. The Soviets had a very hands-on involvement in Mongolian cinema at the time, which had been designated by the ruling Revolutionary Party to serve as a tool for socialist instruction (yes, Tea Partiers, just like in Hollywood!), and so it’s not all that surprising that a story about Mongolia’s battle for the control of Tibet would be skewed to become a teachable moment about the evils of organized religion. Still, for those of us accustomed to the more sympathetic portrayals of the Dalai Lama and his followers that are common today, there is indeed some dark novelty in seeing them cast as the craven oppressors of the people that they are here. And while it is true that the Buddhists made use of the Swastika for many hundreds of years before the Nazis appropriated it -– and toward very different ends --, it’s hard to imagine that Tsog Taij’s shots of their forces marching under flags adorned with it were not meant to conjure associations with certain, much more recent events.
Tsog Taij opens upon the aftermath of a battle near the Tibetan border, in which the forces of Lingden Khan (Bat-Ochir), the last descendant of Genghis Khan, have been crushed by forces lead by Manchurian general Ambagi Tsetsen. As they make their retreat, the ailing Lingden hands the sword of Genghis to a messenger, instructing him to take it to Tsog Taij in Mongolia, and, further, to instruct Taij to muster his forces and join him at the front. Meanwhile, an emissary from the Gelugpa -- or “Yellow Hat" -- Buddhist sect approaches Ambagi Tsetsen and pledges the Dalai Lama’s allegiance, while at the same time asking for assurances that theirs will be decreed the official religion of those areas of Mongolia that fall under Manchurian control.
Meanwhile, back in Mongolia, we see the common folk being generally ground down under the Yellow Hats’ collective boot heels, being forced to chant mantras, bow down before their Nazi symbol, and whatnot, all of which meets with spirited opposition from the noble Tsog Taij (Tsegmeb). Taij further angers his rival, Khush Khan -- a prince who has aligned himself with the Yellow Hats –- when his son, Arslan Taij (Tserendendev), embarks upon a Romeo and Juliet-style romance with Khush Khan’s daughter Khulan (Dolgorsuren). In retaliation, Khush Khan takes the occasion of Taij and his troops being away on maneuvers as an opportunity to stage a late night assault on the prince’s castle, during which Taij’s mother and many of the members of his court are brutally slaughtered by Khush Khan’s Yellow Hat soldiers. Rather than entering into a civil war, as Khush Khan seems intent on provoking him into, the grief stricken Taij, upon returning, proclaims that he will instead take the fight to Tibet itself. Fortuitously, it is almost at this precise moment that Lingden Khan’s messenger appears bearing the sword of Genghis Khan.
And this is only the beginning of Tsog Taij, for, from here, we will go on to see our hero and his forces battle their way across Tibet’s borders, and then proceed onward toward Lhasa. There he will meet with betrayal at the hands of his own son, who, seduced by the evil Lamas –- with the help of a beautiful and licentious Tibetan princess and some of the local libations –- crosses over to the other side, thus destining himself for a traitor’s death under the executioner’s blade. All leads to a final confrontation between the armies of Taij and Khush Khan, during which Taij is mortally wounded, but still finds the strength for one last rousing plea for Mongolian national unity before decorously expiring.
Despite its three hour length and scrupulous-seeming period detail, Tsog Taij is prevented by the glaring nakedness of its (then) present day agenda from truly capturing the viewer within its epic sweep. This problem is further compounded by the fact that director T. Khurlee, despite having the extras, the props, and the scenery to accomplish the task, wastes them by failing to shoot the pivotal battle scenes with any kind of dynamism, instead making them come off as somewhat static and clunky. Where he does capture an appropriate sense of grandeur is in those quieter, tension-filled moments that both lead up to and follow those battles, such as in his sweeping shots of the carnage left in the wake of the film’s opening melee and the scenes of huge, silent armies trudging their way across vast, wind whipped plains.
Make no mistake about it; Tsog Taij is indeed a handsome looking, technically accomplished film -- thanks in no small part, I imagine, to an influx of Soviet funding and talent. However, those who are looking for a rousing period war picture are likely to come away disappointed. As much as it might have aided its cause, Tsog Taij apparently forgot to be that, instead losing sight of such objectives in the course of pursuing other priorities.