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With: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Tencho Gyalpo, Sonam Phuntsok, Gyatso Lukhang, Tenzin Trinley, Jigme Tsarong, Robert Lin
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violent images
Running Time: 128
Date: 12/24/1997

Kundun (1997)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Passive Resistance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not a Buddhist and I don't know how Buddhists will feel about Kundun. (According to the credits, director Martin Scorsese made the film with the cooperation of the Dalai Lama.) I can tell you though, that Kundun is an extraordinary film.

Kundun has one thing in common with Scorsese's earlier religious film, The Last Temptation of Christ; it's the demystification of a religion. Last Temptation showed us a Christ that had second thoughts and fantasized about women. Kundun shows us the Dalai Lama in a quandary; how to stop the invading Red Chinese without resorting to violence. The difference is that the earlier film suffered from Hollywood casting. No matter how skilled the filmmaking, how serious or poetic the movie, it still had Hollywood stars, with famous faces like Willem Dafoe playing Jesus Christ and David Bowie playing Pontias Pilate. Kundun benefits from the lack of a Hollywood touch. Of its stars, only a few have acting training, a few are American citizens, and only one, Robert Lin (who plays Chairman Mao), has ever been in a film before. Still, Scorsese gets beautiful, honest performances from all of them.

Kundun tells the story of the 14th Dalai Lama, who is now in exile in India. It begins by showing the process wherein he is chosen, or "revealed." A tutor travels the land looking for certain signs of the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. To prove he is the one, a child must recognize his belongings, such as a pair of glasses, from his previous incarnation. The child is called Kundun, after the first Dalai Lama. He grows and studies, and when he is 15, the Chinese invade Tibet, taking advantage of the Tibeten way of non-violence. When it becomes apparent that Kundun's life is in danger, he flees to India.

The film has all the trappings of an "epic," and will no doubt be labeled as one, but Scorsese very skillfully avoids cliches. Kundun is small in scope; all is seen through the Dalai Lama's eyes. There are no scenes of violence, no battle scenes, no shouting, and no heroic speeches. The only glimpse we get of these things is through Kundun's dreams and imagination. One such image, of Kundun standing among an unimaginably large field of dead Tibeten bodies, is one of the most powerful single shots in all of cinema.

It is to Scorsese's and screenwriter Melissa Mathison's credit that they have taken on a passive story, a film in which the central philosophy is non-violence. This could have resulted in a lot of talking heads; or, on the other hand, a lot of screaming and bloody battle scenes, but instead it is poetry. Scorsese seems to have great passion for his subject, but shows restraint and respect. Unlike Spielberg with Amistad, Scorsese resists putting personal touches on the film. Instead he relies on his skill and instinct, both of which he has in tremendous supply. The movie does not preach, it does not bash other religions. Amazingly, it's a movie with no ending, there is no resolution to the conflict. And yet there is a completeness to it. The simple fact that the Dalai Lama left Tibet was a blow to the Red Chinese, a non-violent blow. It's difficult to describe how 2 hours pass in which seemingly nothing happens, but Kundun is mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful.

Kundun was photographed by Roger Deakins, who shot 1996's best film, Fargo. The haunting music is by Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi). These artists, along with Scorsese and Mathison, deserve Oscar nominations. The actor who plays the adult Kundun is named Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong. In real life, he is a scholar and a sportsman, a basketball captain and a golfer. He is not a skilled actor, but his eyes speak magnificently. When Kundun was over, I felt peaceful from having spent time with him and unease at his predicament. Kundun is a great movie, and it's one of the best of 1997.

In 2019, Kino Lorber released a fantastic two-disc Blu-ray set in an attempt to restore the movie to its rightful place in cinema history. (I was one of the few that selected it as the best movie of 1997.) The first disc contains the movie with two audio tracks (5.1 and 2.0) and a commentary track by critic Peter Tonguette. The second disc includes the feature-length documentary In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese (plus an interview with its director), and another documentary, Compassion in Exile. It also includes vintage interviews with Scorsese, Mathison, and Glass, EPK materials, and a trailer. Finally, filmmaker Zade Constantine contributes a liner notes essay. Hopefully this release will bring a larger and more appreciative audience to this great film.

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