Kundun (1997)

Stunning contributions by cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Philip Glass aside, Scorsese’s religious biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama sometimes feels inert and uninspired from a narrative point-of-view. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Martin Scorsese
1997 | USA/Morocco | Biography/Drama/History | 134 mins | 2.35:1 | English & Tibetan
PG (passed clean) for violent images

Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin
Plot: From childhood to adulthood, Tibet’s fourteenth Dalai Lama deals with Chinese oppression and other problems.
Awards: Nom. for 4 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
Distributor: Disney

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Religion, Politics, History
Narrative Style:  Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

When I first saw Kundun more than a decade ago, I wasn’t too enamoured by it and thought there was something iffy about its storytelling—that the way the narrative of the 14th Dalai Lama was told was strangely inert and didn’t feel powerful enough to resonate as many biopics do. 

My second recent viewing confirms my long-held suspicion.  But still, there is a lot to appreciate in Martin Scorsese’s beautiful work on religion and politics, particularly the stunning contributions by cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Philip Glass (in my opinion, his most accomplished score for film). 

On hindsight, Kundun can be seen as part of his ‘spiritual’ trilogy that includes the astonishing The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Silence (2016). 

“Are you the Lord Buddha?”
“I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”

Charting his selection as Dalai Lama when he was a child to young adulthood where he realised he had to spend more time navigating the perils of politics than practice Tibetan Buddhism, Scorsese’s work situates Kundun’s early life story against the rise of Mao Zedong’s new Communist China. 

With the threat of a Chinese invasion of Tibet and the possibility of being exiled from his homeland, the Dalai Lama must reconcile his immediate duty to his people with protecting longer-term interests of his country. 

It is strange enough that Scorsese would tackle a film like this right after making Casino (1995), but also unsurprising as he has always been fascinated—and struggled—with religious faith for his entire life. 

The storytelling may have flaws, but what is unforgettable are the scenic views, the glitter of the colour gold, Glass’ effectively droning score, and some rather intuitive use of montage (cue the sand mandala and dream sequences) to evoke the psychology of a calm and composed spiritual being under moral duress.

Grade: B




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