Kundun (1997) ***
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Melissa Mathison.
Starring: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (Dalai Lama – Adult), Gyurme Tethong (Dalai Lama -Age 12), Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin (Dalai Lama - Age 5), Tenzin Yeshi Paichang (Dalai Lama - Aged 2), Tencho Gyalpo (Mother), Tsewang Migyur Khangsar (Father), Robert Lin (Chairman Mao).
Kundun is the most serene of all of Martin Scorsese’s films. You could probably count the number of times someone raises their voice on one hand, and have a couple of fingers left over. Most of the protagonists in a Scorsese film are ones who are struggling with some sort of inner torment – guilt, remorse whatever. But the Dalai Lama, who is practically the center of every scene in Kundun, faces no such demons. He is almost supernaturally calm throughout the entire movie. I find it kind of strange that the director, who gave us the most conflicted version of Jesus Christ in screen history, seems to think that no such struggle existed in the Dalai Lama. It takes his divinity almost as a given, and like its main character, simply sits back and observes.
The movie opens in the early 1930s in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is just two years old and already he is a handful. When a Holy Man comes to the small town on the Chinese border, he sees something interesting in this child. When he asks him to pick out a number of items that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, the child is able to do so. This seems to prove that the child is the 14th Dalai Lama – he knows what items belonged to the previous one because they were his as well. Over the next decade, he goes through strict training and schooling, to teach him how to become both the spiritual and secular leader of his country. As an adult, he will face decisions more difficult then he predecessors.
China considers Tibet to be part of their land. After WWII, China decides it is time to take control back of this rebel province. The Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan people, does not want this to happen, but they really do not have much choice. The Chinese army is huge, compared to Tibet’s of 5,000. Making it more complicated is the fact that the Dalai Lama does not believe in war. He is committed to non-violence. He reaches out to the world community, only to be rejected each and every time. He tries to negotiate with Chairman Mao, but finds that Mao does not want to listen to him. He has already made up his mind. The Dalai Lama represents a threat, because he commands the loyalty of his people. Eventually, he will have to flee his homeland, to which he has yet been allowed to return to.
Scorsese’s approach to this material is to tell it simply and straight forward. In nearly every scene in the movie, the Dalai Lama is at the center, more often than not, he sits back and observes and listens. He does not believe that he can truly control the outcome; he just wants to do his best to protect his people. Sometimes, the only way to do that is to give up, but the Dali Lama never really does. He tries to passively resist for as long as he can, but it is of little use.
I am not sure that there is a more beautiful film in Scorsese’s oeuvre than this one. The masterful cinematography by Roger Deakins is full of saturated colors, and nearly every frame in the movie is simply beautiful to behold. The art direction and costume design are also rich and colorful, perfectly setting each and every scene. Philip Glass’s constantly pulsating score is distracting at points, but overall underlines the action quite wonderfully. This is a movie where it is possible to simply get lost in all the glorious sights and sounds on display.
But what the film never really does is truly draw us into its story. Part of the problem with the film is that the Dalai Lama is so passive, that at times, it is quite boring to simply sit and watch him as he sits and watches what is going on around him. No doubt this is an accurate depiction, but it does not exactly make for stirring viewing. I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times I was amazed by the visuals on display – an example of pure cinema if I’ve ever seen one – but underwhelmed by the story.
It’s not that Kundun is a bad movie at all. It isn’t. There is a lot to like and admire about the film. But coming from the man who has created some of the most complex character studies of all time – character where it is possible to get lost in their minds, Kundun seems downright simple by comparison. Perhaps Scorsese made the film because the serenity of the Dalai Lama fascinated and intrigued him, and that perhaps he admired him this. Perhaps Scorsese, who has admitted in the past that for much of his life he felt uncomfortable with himself, admired the Dalai Lama for his complete comfort. Because he was raised Catholic, and not Buddhist, he does not have the same sort of complex relationship with him that he does with Jesus, which allowed him to not interject his obsessions as much on this film. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of is that although I admire Kundun a great deal, it’s not really I film I feel that much love for. I had not watched it since its original release, and I find it hard to believe that I will watch it again in the future, unless I decide to go through all of Scorsese’s films again, like I’m doing now. There is a lot to love about Kundun. Just not enough to make it a truly great film.
Monday, June 15, 2009
The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXVI: Kundun
Kundun (1997) ***