Gambit Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

REVIEWED: 02-16-98

Martin Scorsese's Kundun is a film even more eye-pleasing than Great Expectations, and it's possessed of distinctly noble intentions. But it doesn't really work, either. Kundun is the story of the 14th Dalai Lama, the divine spiritual leader of Tibet considered by his followers to be the reincarnation of Buddha. The 14th Dalai Lama, still living today, was born in 1934 and has been in exile from his native land since the 1950s. This film dramatizes his early life and the events that led to his flight from Tibet into India.

Even at age 5, the young 14th Dalai Lama (center) is the spiritual leader of Tibet.
Written by Melissa Mathison, Kundun opens with the search for the reincarnate Buddha after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933. He is found in 1937 as a precocious 2-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso, living with his simple family in a small Tibetan village. Once the monks charged with identifying the new Dalai Lama have settled on Tenzin Gyatso, the boy and his entire family are relocated to the capital at Lhasa, and the child is systematically educated for his duties as spiritual and political leader of his people. The country is still ruled by a regency of elders, however, when, in the aftermath of the communist revolution of China, Mao Zedong reasserts China's ancient claim to Tibet. Hoping to rally the nation against the threat of a Chinese invasion, the regents invest the 15-year-old Dalai Lama with full power. But the invasion comes nonetheless, and Tibet proves largely powerless to resist. Wise beyond his years, the Dalai Lama has hoped to wait until at least age 18 before ascending to his throne, but he tries to lead his people even as a teenager. He is, unfortunately, condescended to by Mao all the while as the Tibetan population is brutalized by Chinese rule. Eventually, fearing for his life in the midst of an armed uprising, the Dalai Lama flees. This is where the film ends, but it is worth noting that the Dalai Lama's long non-violent struggle for human rights for his people won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and a legion of followers worldwide.

Admirable as the Dalai Lama is and lovingly made as this movie is, it's an overlong and ultimately frustrating piece of work. We remain confused throughout as Mathison's script evidently assumes knowledge on part of the viewer that the great majority of us lack. The picture has a nice warning against pride. And the series of young actors (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, 2; Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, age 5; Gyurme Tethong, age 12; and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, 15 and on) acquit themselves very nicely, making the Dalai Lama seem a man who manages to be both charismatic and genuinely humble at the same time -- no easy accomplishment.

I particularly like those moments when the Dalai Lama wonders whether the monks have indeed found the right boy. But as the slow-paced picture goes along, we are constantly running up against passages we can't understand. Why is the man who found the Dalai Lama, Reting Rinpoche (Sonam Phuntsok), first relieved of his duties and then sent to prison, where he ultimately dies under mysterious circumstances? What's going on when the Dalai Lama's father dies and his corpse is seemingly dismembered and fed to vultures? If this is a standard "burial" practice of the Tibetans, that needs to be made clear. Why does China want Tibet? Sure, we're in the habit of not liking the Communist Chinese, but what does Tibet have that the Chinese want? I'm not saying the Chinese lacked their scandalous reasons, only that the film doesn't reveal them. How did the Chinese get hold of the Dalai Lama's brother that they might send him on a mission of fratricide? And once the brother confesses his assignment, what happens to him? Most of all, what does the Dalai Lama mean when he protests the Chinese invasion by saying, "We were just about to change?" If that's a confession of malfeasance, we haven't seen it. And that's typical.

--Rick Barton

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Other Films by Martin Scorsese
A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
Bringing Out the Dead
Mean Streets
Raging Bull
Taxi Driver
The Last Temptation of Christ

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