KUNDUN, Martin Scorsese's excessively earnest story about the
fourteenth Dalai Lama, is as different as can be from the much maligned
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, which starred Brad Pitt (not as the Dalai Lama).
Using Hollywood's rule of 2s, the pictures came out within a few months
of each other. With a paucity of ideas, the studios borrow liberally
from each other, causing similar movies to appear in the same time
KUNDUN has two distinct parts -- before and after the Chinese
invasion of peace-loving Tibet. The first half is as dull as
dishwater. Were it not for the handsome photography and the beautiful
music, I suspect that many people would walk out. As I watched the
minutia of the young Dalai Lama's life -- feeding the fish, learning
geography, buying sheep and watching the rats in the palace, I began to
miss THE POSTMAN. As bad as it was, at least it had a narrative and
some characters. KUNDUN, in contrast, is satisfied to be little more
than a cinematic tone poem and religious homage. And for those who
were turned off by Brad Pitt's film, seeing KUNDUN may cause you to
reevaluate SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET.
Starting in the 1930s, the story shows how they went to a remote
village to discover the little boy they decided was the reincarnation
of the Dalai Lama. After they bring him to the capital, his poor
family gets a large house and their own servants. Using all native
actors, the movie looks totally authentic even if Melissa Mathison's
script makes it relatively vacuous.
Roger Deakins's cinematography for the movie has already won
awards. Although handsome, the beauty comes as much from the terrain
and the sets as the camera work. The orchestral score, which
overpowers many of the scenes, is so clearly composed by Philip Glass
that having his name listed in the credits seems superfluous. The CDs
should sell briskly.
The first half of the movie, which needs heavy trimming, has all
of the interest of a well intentioned, but lifeless, religious
instructional video. When the Chinese invade, the story finally begins
to pick up, slowly but perceptibly. Since it takes persecution of the
Tibetans to breath life into the film, the audience may feel a bout of
guilt along with the relief from boredom. Rather than feel anxiety,
ask yourself why Scorsese took so long to say so little.
The older actors playing the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong as
an adult and Gyurme Tethong at age 10) approach their parts with large
doses of sincerity and reverence. The younger ones (Tulku Jamyang
Kunga Tenzin at age 5 and Tenzin Yeshi Paichang at age 2) are
The grown Dalai Lama goes to Peking to negotiate personally with
the smiling but duplicitous Chairman Mao, played as a buffoon by Robert
Lin. At first the Dalai Lama thinks he has won major concessions from
Mao, but eventually he realizes that Mao's promises are meaningless.
"Religion is poison," Mao lectures him in one of their last meetings.
We see starkly, but briefly, some of the atrocities inflicted on
the poor Tibetans. In the most horrific scene, we witness a child
being given a gun and forced to kill his parents.
After the show ended, the audience at our screening left looking
exhausted. Did the story of one of this century's key religious
figures have to be so inert? KUNDUN sketches the outline of a story
and then fills it in with a music video.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes