Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Movie Review: Kundun

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/97 (limited), 1/16/98 (wide)
Running Time: 2:08
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Tencho Gyalpo, Sonam Phuntsok, Gyatso Lukhang, Tenzin Trinley, Robert Lin

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Music: Philip Glass
Studio: Touchstone Pictures


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Martin Scorsese – a name that is typically associated with both ruthlessly violent films (Goodfellas, Casino, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc.) and dark bushy eyebrows – is a director who always likes to integrate religious elements into his merciless yet artistic films. Twice he has ventured out of his typical territory and directed two features (The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun) that focus entirely on the lives of two heavenly men. Kundun is definitely an atypical Scorsese picture, but with its soothing cinematography, impressive score, and smooth camera angles, Scorsese’s skills as a filmmaker still shine through. Although Kundun may be a tad slow-paced and may lack the level of drama and emotion that one would expect, its simplistic spirituality and its captivating chronology substantiates that it’s hard for Scorsese to beget a bad motion picture.

After the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933, the search began for the reincarnated fourteenth. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1937, that the reborn Buddha was discovered by a holy man disguised as a traveling servant. This holy traveler found a special two-year-old boy near the outskirts of Tibet. When asked, this chosen child flawlessly selected the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s belongings from a table full of loose articles—all the while he exclaimed, “Mine, mine, mine.” The holy man smiled, for he knew he had found their leader, and named the boy Kundun (which translates to “The Presence”) after the first Dalai Lama.

As a young boy, Kundun went through scrupulous training where he gained his sense of how to protect his people and how to passively resist violence. He also learned how to promote compassion and love all living things. From his meditations as young man, he acquired the serenity and wisdom to promote peace and to cherish silence. And, from his political hardships as a developed adult, he learned the brutality of war and the cruelty of a Communist China. This left Kundun with a demanding decision—flee to India, or stay and protect his people?

The entire life story of Kundun – from being a worshipped toddler to being an exiled adult – is told through his eyes—the eyes of His Holiness (the fourteenth Dalai Lama). Considering the storyline is told through the Tibetan spiritual and political leader’s eyes, we don’t see any of the violent images of war going on outside of the monasteries. Instead, we only see sudden glimpses of Kundun’s dreams and nightmares. This lack of exposure to the emotion and pain being suffered makes it harder to connect and sympathize with the Tibetan people. However, through Kundun’s visions and limited exposure to the violence, we can sympathize with him as he struggles to do what is best for his people.

One scene in particular stands out to support this point. Seeing Kundun standing among the thousands of bodies of his red-robed followers is not only visually stunning, but it is also emotionally startling. This incredible aerial shot is without a doubt the cinematic highlight of the feature.

Scorsese’s use of color, superb camera angles, and sound allows Kundun to resonate in your mind and heart long after the two-hour and eight-minute running time. Kundun is such a brilliant palette of reds and golds that it feels more like a dream drenched in soothing hues than a mere movie. Also, its bright cinematography makes it appear more like a series of stained glass windows rather than a strip of celluloid frames. In addition, Scorsese’s masterful camera angles provide a heightened view of this somewhat slow subject. His camera work, depicting a young Kundun hiding under his red robe, not only shows us that a Tibetan’s garb has a low thread-count, but also that Scorsese is as cinematically clever as they come. Furthermore, the film’s score is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the hymns in church, the score not only provides the background, but it also enhances the experience.

While Kundun is a beautiful documentary-of-sorts feature on the life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama and Buddhism, in terms of storyline and character development, it definitely is not one of Martin’s crowning achievements. It did however earn five Academy Award nominations including best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Music; yet, it won none. The award Scorsese has had at his fingertips on for more than twenty years – the "Best Director" Oscar – still remains unearned.

Nonetheless, Kundun still merits my recommendation because its simple yet sacred storyline stays with you, and its overall entrancing impression leaves you both in appreciation of the knowledge you obtained and in amazement of the sentiments you sensed. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004