Movie Magazine International


USA - 1998

Movie Review By Heather Clisby

'Kundun' a film by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Though the Tibetan cause is a favorite of the film crowd, this picture is no political leaflet but, rather, a bold painting, a lucid meditation of sorts.

The story begins in 1937, when a travelling monk recognizes a two-and-a-half year old boy, Tenzin Gyatso, as the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of love and compassion, Kundun. Played by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, the boy is lively, precocious and all too aware that he is somehow special.

Thus begins the careful teachings that will prepare Kundun spiritual and political leadership. We meet him again at age 5 (played by Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin) when he is already being regarded as a valued treasure among his people; even his family must bow to him.

But the boy is not a king or a ruler and his reason for existing is made quite clear: 'You are here to love all living things,' his tutor says. Kundun at age 12 (played by the highly adorable Gyurme Tethong), he is strong and aware. When the Chinese threat becomes real, he warns his advisers: 'I must know everything that you know, I am no longer a child.'

Throughout the film, the daily rituals, sights, smells and sounds of the monastic existence are presented in their full glorious simplicity. The delicate sand paintings that close and open the film, the trance-inducing score of Phillip Glass, the triple-pitch moans and chants of bona-fide monks, glass beads being worn and rubbed together in prayer, the sweeping grandness of the Moroccan landscape - all this from Scorsese and not one Mafia type in sight.

'Kundun' is an epic and comparisons will be made to 'The Last Emperor' - another great historical tale of child-as-leader in Eastern world - but this aspires to loftier hights and, quite often, makes the climb. When the adult Dalai Lama (played by Tenzin Tsarong) is forced to leave his beloved country at the age of 15 and seek refuge in neighboring India, he is sick and tormented by the Chinese invasion and its effect on his people and culture.

Melissa Mathison's screenplay was compiled from nearly 15 interviews with His Holiness. Some scenes, such as his meeting with Chairman Mao and his nightmare of a blood-filled fish pond, were experiences applied directly to the screen with no elaboration.

The Dalai Lama of today is an easily-recognized figure in our culture, which is what ultimately makes 'Kundun' so thought-provoking. This is a guy who hangs out with Richard Gere and was once the guest editor of Vogue magazine and this is how his life began. Odd that Scorsese, of all people, chose to focus on a man who preaches steadfast non-violence. Stranger still is that he pulls it off.

© 1998 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 1/21/98

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