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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

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1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewvideo review
3.  Marty Mapes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
4.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---
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Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In 1949 the Communists took over the mainland of China and by 1950 had solidified their hold on the previously independent Tibet. The Dalai Lama, after giving the political situation much thought, went along with his chief adviser and fled to India to form a government-in-exile--where he still resides today. After you watch Martin Scorsese's film, "Kundun," however, you may conclude that a different strategy could have proved far better. This fourteenth incarnation of Buddha--played by four actors who portray His Holiness from the age of two to his eighteenth year--should have remained in the Tibetan capital where he would have bored the entire invading Chinese army to death.

Director Scorsese could hardly have had this subtext in mind but he has perhaps unwittingly portrayed his Ocean of Wisdom (as Dalai Lama translates to English) as a young fella with all the bedside manner of a Dr. Kevorkian and the charm of a junior accountant working his way through the exams to become an actuary. Well, now, nobody says that everything Scorsese does has to carry the electricity of "Taxi Driver." His "Last Temptation of Christ" is probably the film most like "Kundun" in that it represents one of America's great directors journeying within. But when a movie proceeds step by step as a chronicle with banal dialogue, little action (but some great visuals, admittedly), you might find yourself screaming to introduce a rugged Nazi like Brad Pitt's Heinrich Harrar from "Seven Years in Tibet." Not a chance. "Kundun" is a meditation that would embarrass even some Zen masters who face a blank wall for eight hours daily. What sort of target audience did Scorsese have in mind for this heartfelt albeit static drama? Your typical fourteen-year-old would have little patience for this PG-13 tale and adults will soon tire of a film which can best recommended for Philip Glass's super sound track and some dazzling desert scenes filmed in southern Morocco where hundreds of nonprofessional Tibetans were transported. (It is, incidentally, to Morocco's credit that the almost exclusively Muslim nation welcomed visitors who followed a religion quite different from their own.)

Think back to Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet" and recall how charming the Dalai Lama was from the time he was a tyke through his portrayal by the 14-year-old Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk. As a kid he was absolutely fascinated by his telescope which he'd peer through constantly though there was not an apartment window in sight. He'd bounce up and down while watching movies on his home projector and radiate delight in life. Showing Buddhist-like compassion for all living things was the easiest task in the world for him since he shed hundreds of watts of glee at everything he saw of a pre-Chinese derivation. By contrast the two-year-old "discovered" by monks as the fourteenth incarnation of the spirit of Buddha is little more than a spoiled, self-centered whelp given to bossing his parents around and insisting that he was "in charge." To his credit, though, he did separate two ferocious looking black ants battling in the Moroccan sands, setting them far enough apart to live to fight another day.

What we have is a chronology that begins in 1933, the year that Hitler became Germany's chancellor, an event as remote to Tibetans as the emergence of a full moon on Jupiter would be to a run-of-the-mill New Yorker. Tested surreptitiously by monks, the two year old played by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang (if you're keeping score) "selects" the right objects laid out before him on a table, thus proving his near-divinity, but by the time 1944 rolls around, the Dalai Lama is no longer giggling. He watches the bombing of Hiroshima with astonishment and is ultimately challenged when the new Communist government in Peking (now Beijing) insists that Tibet surrender its alleged sovereignty and become part of China.

The most absurd vision is a conference between the Dalai Lama and General Mao Tse-tung, the latter played by Robert Lin who looks as though he had just emerged from Mme Tussaud's wax museum. Mao is a heck of a nice guy at first, so unlike the dictator who ultimately sends his legions to Lhasa to massacre non-resisting, colorfully costumed Tibetans. Knowing that Tibet is doomed as soon as he notices Mao's shiny, Western shoes, the Lama is faced with a decision. Should he agree to the seventeen demands and turn his people over to these Communists? Should he remain in Lhasa and carry out an active resistance? Or should he flee just over the border to India and carry on a government- in-exile there? Well, now, anyone who knows the difference between a Lhasa Apso and a Great Dane already remembers the answer, and the rest is history. The enlightened moviegoer will not learn much that is new, save one valuable piece of information. Non-violence, for which practicing Buddhists are famous, does not necessarily mean pacifism. Non-violence, as explained in Melissa Mathison's screenplay, means: cooperate where cooperation is possible, resist when it is not.

What the picture does is provide dazzling visuals, particularly one from the Dalai Lama's nightmares of hundreds of Buddhist monks lying bloodied in the streets which, as ace cameraman Roger Deakins draws his camera up and away resembles nothing less horrible than the gruesome discoveries made by liberating armies at Auschwitz in 1945. "Kundun" has its heart in the right place but emotionally is oddly distancing and intellectually ordinary. We might sum up the 134 minutes as providing us with a "Hello, Dalai, well hello Dalai...'twould be nice to have you back where you belong."

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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