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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Kundun

Starring: Tenzin Thothob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 134 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genre: Drama

Review by Steve Rhodes
1½ stars out of 4

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 frame.

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 terminally cute.

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

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