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 (Baker 56). 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 (Whalen-Bridge 49).
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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. 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. 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.
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 is 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.
The review I have chosen for the analysis is a positive one. However, despite its general correctness as well as the author’s attempts to justify his opinion, this piece of critics still lacks profoundness as it fails to address a lot of important aspects of the movie.
First and foremost, the review is mostly concentrated upon the visual aspect of the movie even though it is far from its major values. The author does not touch upon the plot, the direction, or any other aspects to come out with a comprehensive overview. However, he provides a demonstrative comparison of Kundun with The Last Temptation of Christ to draw the reader’s attention to the evident supremacy of the latter (Gleiberman).
I disagree with the reviewer’s opinion that the movie fails to approach the major conflict of Buddhism–the acknowledgment that life implies suffering. 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. The concept is so strong in people’s minds that the viewer cannot help wondering at their unwavering faith (simultaneously realizing that suffering is unavoidable no matter how pious and virtuous you are). 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 and the fact that they all expect miracles from a small boy hints at his future sufferings. The author of the review is wrong that the director did not manage to show how Kundun’s temperament as a person played against the demands of his pedestal–on the contrary, his detachment and lack of sensuality are aimed to show the inner struggle that characterizes a real spiritual leader. Kundun’s personal development played a considerable role in Buddhism transformation, which predetermines the tone of the narrative that follows (Evans 24).
Thus, there is an evident contradiction in this critical assessment: On the one hand, the reviewer insists that the movie is deeply spiritual and demonstrates perfectly the hardships that religious icons have to go through; on the other hand, he claims that it fails to notice that the Dalai Lama is shown as a human being. The author argues that Kundun prevents the viewer from seeing a holistic picture of his life and personality since he is cold and impassive. However, we should not forget that this restraint and calmness is the result of a longitudinal inner struggle. 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 indeed not developed enough. Nevertheless, the movie deserves a much better estimation than the review provides.
Baker, Aaron. A Companion to Martin Scorsese. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Evans, Tristian. Shared Meanings in the Film Music of Philip Glass: Music, Multimedia, and Postminimalism. Routledge, 2016.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Kundun.” Rotten Tomatoes. 1998. Web.
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. SAt. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.
Whalen-Bridge, John. “What is a ‘Buddhist Film?’.” Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 15, no. 1, 2014, pp. 44-80.