Kundun (US 1997)

Kundun – the Dalai Lama (left) with three of his counsellors

Kundun is Martin Scorsese’s biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama who left Tibet in 1959 after increased persecution by occupying Chinese forces. I was offered the chance to introduce the film and accepted, partly because I didn’t see the film on release and I was intrigued about what I would find – especially in the context of my recent viewing of Shutter Island.

Kundun was made for Disney. It cost $28 million – mostly I’m guessing on the shoot in Morocco (as well as North America) and the matte and digital work in post-production. The cast are all unknown Tibetans who speak different forms of accented English (the English subtitles on the DVD are helpful here). The production team includes Scorsese regulars Dante Ferretti on production design and costume design and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor. Exceptional cinematography from Roger Deakins and a score from Philip Glass make for a memorable experience . I just wish that I’d seen the film on a giant screen with a decent sound system.

The film had a difficult release. Disney failed to support it properly – giving way to objections by the Chinese authorities in order to protect their future relationships and media deals in the territory. Some critics were very negative about the film and Scorsese certainly suffers because of the perception that he is an ‘action’ director. I’ve seen all of Scorsese’s features (bar The Last Temptation of Christ) and I think that my favourite is The Age of Innocence – probably because I taught it a couple of years ago, but mainly because it is so clearly drawing on Scorsese’s vast knowledge of international cinema. There are some similarities with Kundun, most noticeably in terms of the fascination with rituals and forms of etiquette. Both films I think are made partly in hommage to Visconti and The Leopard. A further criticism – or perhaps an assumption from those who haven’t seen the film – is that it is another example of an American take on ‘Bhuddist chic’. Also in 1997, Jean-Jacques Annaud released Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt as the German who escaped from a British internment camp in India and spent time in Tibet from 1944-1951.) Earlier, Bernardo Bertolucci made Little Buddha (1994) in Hollywood. The leading Buddhist and Tibetan supporter in Hollywood is Richard Gere who has been involved in many promotional activities.

There are also some very positive reviews of Kundun, including one from Andrew O’Hehir in Sight and Sound (April 1998). He takes the film to be a triumph of form and pure cinema. I think that I would agree with that position – but I find the lack of narrative drive and emotional engagement a problem. The film is essentially a biopic or to be more precise a ‘religious biopic’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (February 1998) with Amy Taubin, Scorsese refers to Rossellini’s Francesco, guillare di Dio (1950) and he dedicates the film to his mother – an indication that he thought about the stories of the saints from his childhood. Yet he declares that it can’t be a film like Rossellini’s and that as a Hollywood film it will inevitably be compared with epic films like Lawrence of Arabia – but it’s not that kind of film either. Scorsese calls his film a ‘hybrid’ and rails against US critics and what he sees as their failure to understand cinema outside Hollywood. On this I think he is correct. As I watched it, I was conscious of many films set in Central Asia – Chinese, Korean, Mongolian etc. and also of the ‘international’ epics such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky (1990). But these films all have strong casts and usually quite strong scripts. I think I agree with Amy Taubin’s Sight and Sound comments that the weak element in Kundun is the script. (It’s worth remembering that Rossellini’s Francis was scripted by Fellini even if the monks were non-actors.) I’m not sure what specific expertise Melissa Mathison had that led to her adapting the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. She is best known as the writer of ET – based on an idea by Steven Spielberg – and her adaptation of The Black Stallion. According to Wikipedia, she approached the Dalai Lama and interviewed him to create the property which was then offered to Scorsese.

The film is divisible into three parts. The first recounts the early life of the ‘Kundun’ (the ‘presence’) and involves several children playing the boy at different ages. In some ways this is the most familiar Hollywood part of the film, but since there are four actors in all playing the Kundun and most of the other characters are monks, it requires a tighter script to involve an audience I think. Part two sees the now 15 year-old Kundun facing the problem of what to do about the territorial claims of the PRC founded in 1949. This at least gives us some international politics with a trip to Beijing and the possibility of action and then in the final part the film moves into the flight from the Chinese. This last section becomes more like an art film with its shifting time periods and stunning imagery, including dream sequences. I got the impression that Scorsese enjoyed this most and I seem to remember reading that in the editing process he and Schoonmaker decided to stop worrying about matching shots and locations and began to cut together different monastery rooms and chambers to create a mood or tone rather than narrative continuity. I think too that this decision also affected how some of the earlier scenes were edited so that the whole film became less linear and more essay-like.

I feel like I didn’t really learn enough about either Tibet or Buddhism and certainly not enough about the Chinese occupation and persecution of Tibetans. We never understand why the Chinese are so insistent on ‘reclaiming’ Tibet for China. It is interesting how the Kundun looks to the UK and US for support and eventually crosses into India. This ‘westward-looking’ stance may explain something of the Chinese attitude, but it is more complex than that. In 1959, I think that Mao’s concern was that India might become more closely allied with the Soviet Union and securing the border with India in Tibet may have been an important military objective (China and India went to war over this border in 1962). But this doesn’t explain the attitude towards the Tibetans. Perhaps that had more to do with  quenching religious activity within the PRC – most Chinese having some form of attachment to Buddhism. It might have been helpful to know whether the Dalai Lama has any kind of status amongst Buddhists outside Tibet (Buddhism as I understand it does not have formal congregations or leadership). Perhaps this is why the charge of ‘American chic’ has some weight if the Dalai Lama is treated as an iconic figure acting as a focus for American reactions to Chinese oppression. Anyone any thoughts? I suspect that none of this bothered Scorsese much and he did make a great piece of cinema.

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3 comments

  1. Just Another Film Buff

    I thought this was a challenge that Marty took upon himself. With such a reverent, bland script, what could one potentially do?

    Scorsese and Deakins offer what the script doesn’t. Every frame and every scene shows HHDL as a person caught between (responsibilities and promsies of) heaven and (realities of) earth – the idea that Scorsese has been exploring since Mean Streets, thru’ The Last Temptation, till The Aviator. I daresay that Scorsese sees himself in HHDL, like he saw himself in the Christ, Howard Hughes, Jake LaMotta and many more. I believe that Scorsese is the right kind of filmmaker to handle biopics like Mandela’s and Gandhi’s because it is precisely this personal dimension that’s so Scorsese-ian.

    Marty’s cinema has never been about great acts of great people, a la Spielberg, it’s been about revealing that they are, after all, human. The conflicts he deals with are not macroscopic, national issues. They are internal, spiritual and primal. That’s what makes him the most honest filmmaker Hollywood has.

    Top article, Venicelion. How would you rate Seven Years in Tibet, released the same year?

    • venicelion

      I think that you argue very convincingly for Scorsese’s project. I’m usually very interested in the kind of ‘humanist cinema’ which explores the dilemmas that characters face and treats them as human beings making mistakes. But I rarely warm to Scorsese’s characters in this way as he seems to aim for something much ‘bigger’ with characters who are more deeply flawed. For me, Scorsese’s strength is the execution of the director’s role – with a strong script he then produces a great film. Without the strong script he becomes self-indulgent. In Kundun there is an edit (a dissolve, I think) from Kundun, saying that the Chinese can’t liberate him, he must liberate himself, to a sequence from a film showing a battle in the Middle Ages. On a first viewing, I thought that this might be Alexander Nevsky, but looking it up, I see that it was Olivier’s Henry V. How is an audience supposed to know this? Is it meant to be ironic since Henry V was a patriotic, propaganda film made in the UK during the fight against fascism? Kundun will eventually flee Tibet for India.

      The problem with the film, I think, is that some form of political discourse is inevitable given the subject matter – and the script doesn’t know what to do with it. (Keith is trying to argue something similar with Shutter Island, but I’m not sure that I agree with him on that!)

      Haven’t see Seven Years in Tibet, I’m afraid. Should I?

      • Just Another Film Buff

        Hmm, You may be right. The reverent distance between Scorsese and his material is palpable here. May be Scorsese realized this a bit late.

        I loved Seven Years in Tibet when I first saw it, but I’m not sure if I’d feel the same way now. On one hand, it reinforces the stereotype about the exoticism of the orient and on the other it avoids the issue of white man’s burden. I’d have to see it one more time. But I’d surely recommend the film.

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