The life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama (the human manifestation of Buddha) is a
complicated one: a Buddhist monk who sought to protect Tibet from the Chinese
communist forces by employing nonviolence. This is a project that other
directors such as Zhang Yimou ("Shanghai Triad") or Chen Kaige ("Farewell My
Concubine") would have aptly taken on. I never expected Martin Scorsese, the
poet of violent, lowlife characters, to undertake such an overwhelming,
ambitious project. On the other hand, this is the same man who brought us
distinguished achievements such as "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Last
Waltz," and "The Age of Innocence," not to mention his memorable gangster
trilogy: "Mean Streets," "GoodFellas" and "Casino." "Kundun" is a gorgeous
film: a lavish treatment of the Dalai Lama's life, but it is just that - a
"Kundun" is the secret name of the Dalai Lama, and it is a name only his
family or close members use. Kundun's life is chronicled in linear fashion:
from his days as a young boy screaming "This is mine. This is mine!" as he is
discovered to be the fourteenth incarnation of Buddha, to his days as an
eighteen-year-old bespectacled leader whose best defense against the Chinese
army is to leave the palace in disguise, on a journey to India. Tenzin Thuthob
Tsarong plays the leader as an adult who finally meets the Chinese dictator Mao
Zedong (Robert Lin), and his shiny black shoes, in Beijing as Tibet is being
invaded by the Red Army. Mao's response to the Dalai Lama's pleas for religious
tolerance is "Religion is poison."
The first half-hour of "Kundun" is at its best when conveying Kundun's
childhood as he is taken from his humble village to the Holy City of Lhasa
where he brings in forbidden treasures such as "Life" magazines, film
projectors where he runs cowboy films and silents, and cars. Despite all these
trappings, Kundun keeps forgetting he's the Dalai Lama and that he has a
country to protect, including the 5,000 soldiers who guard it. "But I am only a
boy," proclaims Kundun. "What can I do?" His spiritual guides convince him that
he is the Dalai Lama and, therefore, must know what course of action to take.
All of "Kundun" is very subjective: it is all told from his point-of-view.
There are no Western outsiders like Brad Pitt or Peter O'Toole to distract us.
This is a noble, risky achievement, but the movie does not succeed in letting
us inside Kundun's soul or his spiritual beliefs. As written by Melissa
Mathison ("E.T."), the screenplay reduces the Dalai Lama to a statue for us to
look up in wonder; a man representative of peace and nonviolence, but little
else. Didn't Kundun ever have some doubts about his spirituality? Did he ever
question the fact that he was the Dalai Lama? Mostly, we see Kundun weep at the
thought of imminent violence, and we see him being greeted and idolized by
others as he walks in a solemn state with his red robes. The film's best
sequence is Kundun's nightmarish vision of his followers murdered by the Red
Army in a vast landscape of death - we see several corpses surrounding him in
an atypical shot of Scorsese's canon. Beyond that, the film is not very
introspective of Kundun - we see glimpses of his soul but not much more.
On the plus side, "Kundun" is the most beautiful movie of Scorsese's career -
it is so voluptuously shot by Roger A. Deakins and so beautifully composed that
you are not likely to see a purer example of cinematography for a long time.
There's never a wasted, uninvolving shot making the whole film as captivating
and involving as it can be. It is also elegantly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker,
full of dissolves from minute details of pearls and cuffs to wide shots of the
villages occupying Kundun's existence. The scenes of the Buddhist marches,
ceremonies and rituals are as powerfully executed as you can imagine,
especially the funeral procession of Kundun's father being fed to the vultures.
The film is certainly not boring, and it is rightly meditative and slow-moving,
much like the superior "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?"
"Kundun" is a major departure for Scorsese - it is possibly his most
spiritual, peaceful film since "The Last Temptation of Christ." The problem is
Scorsese detaches us from Kundun's soul, and is much too respectful of him
(Even Jesus Christ had his flaws). A common criticism of Scorsese's past work
is that he takes an objective view of his characters; what he really does is
create behavioral portraits. I never found myself detached from any of his main
protagonists (except for Jimmy Doyle in "New York, New York"). Travis Bickle,
Jake LaMotta, Newland Archer, Rupert Pupkin, "Ace" Rothstein are but a few
examples of Scorsese's most successful, soulful portraits. Kundun could have
been another example.
Copyright © 1997 Jerry Saravia