Martin Scorsese's films used to intimidate me. Because of his
reputation, I felt obligated to appreciate them as deep film art rather than
as great flicks. As much as I enjoyed them, I usually felt like I missed
I learned from Scorsese's CASINO that whatever techniques he uses are merely
there to enhance the story. No mystical interpretation is required to
appreciate his movies.
For example, in CASINO he uses subtitles when Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci
are using code words with each other. There was no meaning more exotic than
that subtitles were the most succinct way for him to tell the audience what
was really going on. Or toward the end, when he uses three quick dissolves
to compress a scene of a car backing away from a building. Again, the
simple, mundane explanation is that it helped the pacing.
I don't mean to say that his techniques are not creative or good-looking.
But he simply uses the best tool for the job.
It shouldn't have surprised me, then, that KUNDUN, a film about a mystical
religion, actually turned out to be quite straightforward.
The movie follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and
political leader of Tibet. The movie's title is another name for the Dalai
Lama which means "Ocean of Wisdom." His story is told in strict
chronological order and there are only a few cinematic visions to embellish
the literal story. (One of which makes an interesting statement: pay
attention to the film's opening shot and watch where it is repeated.)
We first glimpse the Dalai Lama when he is two years old. His curiosity and
self-assuredness capture the attention of a monk wandering in search of the
A test is arranged to see if this boy really is the reincarnation of the 13
Dalai Lamas who have gone before. Several items belonging to the previous
Dalai Lama are laid before the boy alongside some other items. The child is
asked if he recognizes any of the items as his own. The boy picks correctly,
proving that he is the new, and the old, Dalai Lama.
Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker were kind enough to allow
the possibility that the child was taking his cues from the monk. Before
selecting an item, he would look at the monk, perhaps for some sort of
confirmation. Sometimes he picked right the first time, and sometimes he
made a second choice. Either way, whether through reincarnation or quick
human perception, the Tibetans were assured of choosing a boy who could be a
wise, perceptive leader.
>From this point on, the boy is raised as the reincarnation of the Lama's
spirit and the future leader of a nation. It is a great weight to put on the
mind of a child. In the U.S. it might be grounds for a call to Social
Services. But the young Lama accepts his destiny without any apparent
emotional damage. Neither the great power nor the awesome responsibility
keeps him from becoming a genuinely likeable, well-rounded person.
Certain patterns take shape over the years. For example, the Dalai Lama is
fascinated by technology. Radios, clocks, and telescopes are some of his
favorite toys. When he is old enough to accept his leadership, he makes
plans to modernize isolated Tibet.
He also has a soft spot for creatures who are suffering or in pain,
including herd animals. It's nearly a running gag that he will buy sheep to
keep them from being herded to slaughter.
But the most ominous constant throughout his life is the presence and threat
of Tibet's gigantic neighbor, China. Tibet and its leaders prove correct in
fearing China, as, first the propaganda, then the political pressure, and
finally the armies, come across their common border.
The Chinese invasion is so successful that the Lama's life is in danger if
he stays. The movie ends when, after much agonizing, the Dalai Lama leaves
Tibet for India.
The story doesn't lead up to a cinematic climax as strongly as most feature
films do. It just doesn't fit that mold. If it were forced into such a shape
it would have been a completely different movie (perhaps more like SEVEN
YEARS IN TIBET, which is good in its own right).
The pacing of KUNDUN is more calm and level than that. The structure of the
film is made to fit the characters and events, not vice-versa. Perhaps
because the pace is slower, we have more time to notice the beautiful art,
vestments, and architecture of Tibet.
A mandala, (Tibetan sand painting) with beautiful, vibrant colors is shown
throughout the movie. The robes and hats of state are bright red and gold.
The bricks are a rich reddish brown, not unlike the skin tone of the
Tibetans. Even the Touchstone pictures logo before the movie (which is
usually light blue) is the red and gold of Tibet.
Philip Glass composed the music for KUNDUN, and he was the perfect choice.
For those who don't know of Glass, his music is like a Tibetan mandala. His
building blocks are lots of small notes, tiny grains of music, which are
first grouped, then repeated in patterns. These patterns create interesting
textures which are themselves part of a larger composition.
People won't be flocking to KUNDUN for it's great ending, or talking about
its outstanding plot, but it does have a lot to offer: an interesting
lifetime, exotic sights, rich cinematography, and innovative music. It gives
interesting insight into Tibetan Buddhism and takes a warm look at the Dalai
Lama as a person.
On top of it all is the cinematic mastery of Martin Scorsese, who gives the
film a strong, beautiful, consistent look.
Copyright © 1997 Marty Mapes