Kundun (Touchstone Pictures) provides a breathtaking view of a nation’s struggle to stand against the currents of Communist China. But looking at that same view for well over two hours can prove wearisome.
Martin Scorsese steps beyond the blood baths of past efforts like Casino and Cape Fear to capture the early life of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, in the beautifully-textured Kundun.
The film opens in 1937 with the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. The Buddhist nation believes its leader is continually reborn into human form. The film traces the life of the newly-named, two-year-old Dalai Lama, Kundun. It details Tibet’s nonviolent posture against militant China’s 1950 invasion, eventually resulting in Kundun’s exile to India at age 24.
Much of the film shows Kundun as a playful child, which Scorsese uses to give humor to a profoundly spiritual and mysterious leader. The camera work assumes the perspective of a child, revealing the culture from the ground up through wonderfully odd angles.
Kundun’s actually was filmed in Morocco. Every set and costume – from the streets of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and the massive Potala Palace, to the tiniest gold trinket – was made in Morocco. More than 1,500 artifacts were constructed.
Views of the sweeping landscape occasionally are marred by the glaring dissonance of Philip Glass’s soundtrack.
Once the eye grows accustomed to the aesthetics, an enthralling story is hard to find. The visually-intriguing film implies the culture itself has more depth than the linear plot reveals. The culture certainly is surveyed, but never truly explored. And what would appear to be a riveting tale – an ancient nation’s loss of identity – comes across as over simplified. The Dalai Lama remains silent while his people are obliterated. And while his shyness may mirror the way things actually unfolded, it doesn’t make an exhilarating movie.
The Tibetan Buddhist culture focuses largely on the internal self, which does not lend itself to filmmaking. Perhaps the relatively sedentary plot is a mark of authenticity. With a cast of almost all non-professional Tibetan actors and an editorial staff that included the Dalai Lama, Kundun no doubt remains true to Tibet. Maybe that is more important than remaining true to Hollywood.
Kundun is now playing.