Kundun (1997)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Stars: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong

Release Company: Touchstone Pictures

MPAA Rating: PG-13

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Scorsese: Kundun


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The idea that Martin Scorsese could make a film about the Dalai Lama after inhabiting the New York City worlds of low-lifes, gangsters, and psychotic taxi drivers really isn't so surprising. Not even the New Age music of Phillip Glass for Kundun shocks, since Scorsese sensitively explored spiritual conflict in The Last Temptation of Christ, effectively enhanced by the surreal Peter Gabriel score. After all, Scorsese once studied to be a priest and consistently develops characters who struggle with guilt and matters of the soul--a parallel to the director who has forsaken the spiritual for the secular world?

Filmed with the approval of the 14th Dalai Lama himself, Kundun is reverential to a fault ...and that fault is the film's biggest weakness. It feels sanitized and detached, like the Bible stories many of us grew up with that pictured Jesus and the Apostles as ideals more than flesh and blood. Scorsese is certainly capable of creating believable conflicted protagonists, even one as revered as Jesus. Kundun capably highlights the Dalai Lama's early life, beginning in 1937, and beautifully recreates the Tibetan region in Casablanca and other locations (no way would the Chinese government allow filming in Tibet), but the film never leaps to life. Recitations on the Four Noble Truths may excite devoted Buddhists and students but will send more viewers to oblivion than enlightenment.

Without Scorsese's fluid camera work, incorporating imaginative angles with continual tracking and movement, most viewers would zone out within the first few minutes. The biography unfolds very slowly, beginning just as the young Dalai Lama turns his "terrible twos," demanding to sit at the head of the table and claiming possession of a visiting lama's prayer beads. -Scorsese finds it difficult to show us the young boy's point of view, though one of the more interesting shots does precisely that—a side view of two conversing pairs of adult feet.

Most of the time, Scorsese relies on adults to comment or use their eyes and body language to describe the assumed spiritual powers of the boy. His mother (Tencho Gyalpo) relates how her husband was miraculously healed upon the birth of the boy, how Kundun never cried at birth, and how two crows guarded him (just like the previous Dalai Lama). When a Buddhist monk seeking the latest reincarnation of the Buddha arrives, he does little except smile a lot and exclaim, "Yes, this is yours" when the small boy chooses the right bowl, cane, and eyeglasses—a similar scene occurs in Little Buddha.

Although scenes like this identify the spiritual station of the young boy, they play out like small fables and give little insight into the boy's character. Adult reactions to this young Dalai Lama become more interesting—the looks of shock and surprise on his older brother and parents are nice touches, but they soon bow down to his presence without questioning. Are we to believe that typical Tibetan parents would be so accepting of having their five-year-old son declared the spiritual and secular leader of the country, to be sequestered away in a Buddhist monastery?

Thematically, the strongest message lies with the overwhelming responsibilities with which the young Dalai Lama is faced. Sequestered in the monastery, expected to conform to rigid rules and perform sacred rituals, surrounded by a staff that has carried on its duties and traditions over a millennium, and engulfed in a sea of political strife with China demanding Tibet's return to the motherland, how does a child cope with the responsibilities? As the ten-year old Kundun asks, "What can I do? I'm only a boy," his advisers continue to look to him for leadership, firmly believing that he will do the right thing. Their faith in re-incarnation is firm, and they regard the boy as the return of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, continuing the string of reincarnations of the compassionate Buddha.

Scorsese does what he can, showing the boy educating himself about the outside world via Atlases, newspaper accounts, and films (no surprise here, given Scorsese's sensibilities). He also attempts some compassionate connections with his roots with a return visit home upon the death of his father, but the most visually interesting portion is the sky burial (ritualistic chopping of dead "meat" for the gathering vultures). Still, these moments don't fully connection emotionally, because the Dalai Lama never truly becomes a flesh and blood character; Scorsese remains too reverential to make him human.

Even the antagonists fail to achieve true antipathy. The Chinese general is portrayed as an ignorant fool with zero communication skills, as the frustrated man misinterprets utterly the silences of the Dalai Lama. Chairman Mao is so over-the-top evil and ridiculous (in thanking the Dalai Lama for "being late" and subsequently denouncing religion as a weakness) that he could serve as a caricature of himself and land a part in the latest Austin Powers sequel.

However, the film has a great deal of value. Chronicling the early life of the Dalai Lama competently, giving a glimpse into Chinese cruelty and injustice in subjugating Tibet to its tyranny, and providing beautiful scenes that display Tibetan culture and its brand of Buddhism, all make Scorsese's Kundun a worthwhile historical and cultural document. Stash this one in the education files, as you can learn a great deal—just don't expect to become inspired or entertained in the way that the inferior Seven Years in Tibet intends.


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