Movie Review – Kundun

Kundun (1997)
Written by Melissa Matheson
Directed by Martin Scorsese

When I was eleven years old, I watched the Oscars and saw actor Richard Gere come out to give an award. Instead of going into the teleprompter text, he spent thirty seconds talking about China and its occupation of Tibet, imploring then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to move his soldiers out and allow Tibet to be free. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it certainly left an impression on me. All I knew about Tibet was that it was close to the Himalayas at the time. I certainly didn’t comprehend the history of Tibet and China. I also had no idea who the Dalai Lama was.

In 1937, Reting Rinpoche, the Regent of Tibet, searched for the 14th incarnation of the country’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. They discover him in the form of a little boy living with a farming family. His name is Tenzin Gyatso, and he claims objects that belonged to the 13th Lama. Tenzin is brought to the palace in Lhasa, where he is installed as the Dalai Lama and begins his education. The film plays out as episodes that show the Lama’s progression in understanding his role and his responsibilities to Tibet. He experiences loss, grief, joy, and being forced to make difficult decisions. 

The Lama’s most significant difficulties begin in 1950 when the Red Chinese Army moves into Tibet, proclaiming this is a part of their culture. The Lama and his attendants flee towards India but begin negotiations with Mao Zedong. An agreement is made, but it becomes clear that Tibet’s culture will be systematically erased as it is considered part of an “old way” in conflict with Mao’s desires. A faction of Tibetans have gone into guerilla warfare against the Chinese, and the Lama sees his place as fleeing the country to preserve something of Tibet’s culture, hopefully finding support to take their nation back. And so, he and his closest advisors make the long journey to the India border, which he will cross, and to date, has never been able to return to.

As someone unfamiliar with the Dalai Lama’s life and exile details, this was incredibly informative on those fronts. I found this to be very similar to The Last Temptation of Christ, especially with its flaws. Scorsese obviously holds these religious figures in a high place of reverence, and as a result, he makes them very uninteresting. I would say Jesus in Temptation at least participates in a story that challenges some of the popular notions. Kundun is not a movie about a human being; it plays out more like a straight adaptation of a religious text. I will guess that Melissa Matheson is a reasonably devout Buddhist or a great admirer of the Dalai Lama. Thus, he is an entirely flawless character, and I’m not sure how interesting of a film that makes.

I would argue we never get a sense of who the Dalai Lama is; he is presented as an utterly surface-level figure. He loves Tibet, loves the people, and tries to compromise to find a middle path but ultimately abandons it. There’s a slight moment when we might get some conflict as Reting Rinpoche is arrested, and the Lama learns that his palace contains a prison that upsets him. I thought we might explore the details of what led to Reting’s arrest and see the Lama trying to understand the system he’s been made the head of. But nope, that moment is moved past onto the next episode. 

The production design is remarkable, and the setting makes us feel like we are in another world. Tibet has several diverse landscapes, more than I expected. We glimpse things like the Oracle and his ritual where he delivers advice & prophesies to the Lama. There are some tense moments between the Lama and Mao Zedong. But ultimately, we get a very lovely-looking movie with very little humanity within. I certainly came to understand the story of the Lama much better, but I can’t say I cared very much or understood him as a person.

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