Kundun is a 1997 epic biographical movie directed by Martin Scorsese. This historical drama tells the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama – a political and spiritual leader of Tibet named Tenzin Gyatso. The film’s title (which means “presence”) refers to the way the Dalai Lama is addressed. Among other actors, a real grandnephew and niece of the Dalai Lama star in the movie (Ebert 209).
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Kundun covers a chronological sequence of events that happened in the Dalai Lama’s life from 1937 to 1959. The action primarily takes place in Tibet, with only a few episodes in China and India (Conard 212). The story begins with the search for the new reincarnation of the Dalai Lama: it turns out to be a farmer’s child who passed the candidate test and now must move to Potala Palace to wait until his coming of age (Higham 14).
The boy, who first felt frightened and homesick, gradually begins to play a more active role in the spiritual and political life of Tibet. However, simultaneously with the struggle for power within his own country, he has to deal with Chinese invaders who want to annex Tibet and impose communism on its political system. Chairman Mao Zedong meets the Dalai Lama for negotiations during which he proclaims that Tibetans have been poisoned and ruined by their religious views (Daccache and Valeriano 86).
The Dalai Lama is forced to flee from Tibet to India to save his life and family. After a hard journey, he finally reaches his new residence for good. The film leaves him at that point (Grist 244). Due to such an open ending, Kundun produces the impression of the first chapter of a longer and more complicated dramatic story.
The movie’s contribution to understanding the life of the Dalai Lama and the tulku concept
The movie not only gives insight into the life of the Dalai Lama but also provides a clear explanation of the way the tulku is understood and materialized (Thondup 124). The concept is so strong in people’s minds that the viewer cannot help wondering at their unwavering faith. At the very beginning of the movie, it is evident that no one doubts that the boy is the reincarnation of the deceased Dalai Lama. This predetermines the tone of the narrative that follows.
On the one hand, the movie is deeply spiritual and demonstrates perfectly the hardships that religious icons have to go through; on the other hand, it fails to show the Dalai Lama as a human being (except for the very beginning), which prevents the viewer from seeing a holistic picture of his life and personality. Before watching Kundun, I had never imagined the Dalai Lama as a small boy who might be scared of the mission and power with which he had been endowed. Unfortunately, this plotline is left out in the later episodes.
In my opinion, the movie is admirable in its commitment to the director’s vision. Scorsese refuses to meet the audience’s expectations. Instead of packing Kundun with action, he manages to capture the nature of holiness by portraying spiritual enlightenment against the atrocious background of the century’s events. The movie features a fascinating surreal visual imagery and sublime music. I enjoyed the way Kundun was directed and the message it communicates to the viewer. However, the film feels emotionally detached. It’s difficult to sympathize with the main character as his life is shown as a sequence of parables, which is far from plausible. Despite this, the movie is inspiring indeed and can be recommended to anyone who enjoys artistic cinema.
Conard, Mark. The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese. University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Daccache, Jenny George, and Brandon Valeriano. “Political Messages and Cultural Realities.” Hollywood’s Representations of the Sino-Tibetan Conflict. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012. pp. 85-99.
Ebert, Roger. Scorsese by Ebert. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Grist, Leighton. “Cinema of Transcendence, Cinema as Transcendence: Kundun.” The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1978–99. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013. pp. 243-271.
Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes: The Secret Life. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.
Thondup, Tulku. Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet. Shambhala, 2011.