In the end credits the “contribution and cooperation” of the Dalai Lama are acknowledged, though it’s hard to know precisely what that contribution was. Pic does not offer an “official” version of the charismatic leader’s life, but neither does it elucidate Tibet’s unique pacifist culture beyond what most informed viewers might already know.
Following a straightforward chronological order, story begins in 1933 with the death of the 13th Dalai Lama and the search for a successor. It’s told from the subjective point of view of a child (at ages 2 and 5 in the first sequences) born in a remote rural area and destined to become the new Dalai Lama. Relying on Roger Deakins’ bravura lensing, early chapters convey the unadulterated joy of a child at play. He giggles innocently when asked to identify objects placed on a table, not realizing that to the monks observing him, this is the beginning of a sacred process of divination, one that results in labeling the boy the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion.
Richly detailed, with utmost attention to visual detail and color composition, first part sets a mysterious, almost surreal tone for a movie that in its ritualistic concerns and formal beauty bears some resemblance to Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and “Little Buddha,” without the latter’s overtly erotic charge, and to Kurosawa’s epic films “Kagemusha” and “Ran.”
The story gets more somber when it jumps ahead to 1944 and the Dalai Lama learns about Nazism and the Hiroshima bombings from Western magazines and newsreels. At the end of WWII, he is confronted with China’s aggressive campaign to convince the world that Tibet belongs to it. Still a youngster, he’s forced to deal with political strife and spiritual adversity of the highest order.
Pic’s second part begins in 1949, when Gen. Mao Zedong ruthlessly enforces Communist ideology in his country and tight military control over Tibet, despite persistent protests from the Dalai Lama to let the region maintain its long-cherished autonomy. Last section depicts the Chinese massacre of innocent Tibetans, the annihilation of a “society of spirit” and, finally, the Dalai Lama’s successful journey into exile, which continues at present.
Maintaining a remarkably coherent p.o.v. throughout the film, Scorsese keeps the camera close to the ground. In a series of masterful shots, he depicts the comfort with which the young boy observes his parents’ feet moving across the house in their worn sandals. These shots assume stronger, elegiac meaning when they’re later contrasted with the adult leader observing Mao’s shiny black Western shoes and realizing that his efforts to save Tibet are doomed.
It’s indicative of the script’s shortcomings that the film’s weakest sequences are those depicting the historically fateful meetings between the Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao. Heavily made up, Robert Lin’s Mao speaks in broad slogans and mundane dialogue, delivered by the actor with such mannered artifice that the Chinese leader comes across as a monstrous caricature, borderline camp.
“Kundun” (which means “ocean of wisdom”) represents an exception in Scorsese’s extraordinary oeuvre in several respects. With the notable exception of “Last Temptation,” most of Scorsese’s narratives have centered on small, male groups of alienated, paranoid individuals who are victims of their unbridled instincts. In contrast, the beauty of “Kundun” is that it provides an intriguing collective portrait of a large community and its distinctive values, rites and rituals.
Scorsese’s specialty is in recording the random, unpredictable flow of realistic events, particularly spontaneous outbursts of rage and violence. But since everything in “Kundun” is historically pre-determined, the text is inevitably quieter, less spontaneous and more internal than his previous efforts. Unlike most of Scorsese’s other screen characters, those in “Kundun” are articulate and restrained, their behavior guided by an acute sense of morality.
At the same time, “Kundun” does express some of Scorsese’s perennial concerns, such as the destruction of small, distinctive subcultures when they are engulfed by larger political or economic forces, whether it’s the disappearance of a graceful lifestyle in “The Age of Innocence” or the decline of petty mobsters before the corporations take over in “Casino’s” Vegas.
Scorsese deserves credit for making a relevant film that is not merely a political statement. But while his emphasis of the humanist and ritualistic elements of Tibet’s tragedy is commendable, ultimately “Kundun” emerges as a movie that’s hypnotic without being truly compelling, sensuously stunning but not illuminating.
Still, the shallow narrative and commonplace dialogue are more than compensated for by helmer’s notable sense of kinetic energy, evident here in the vitality and tension of Deakins’ spectacular visuals. Sumptuously mounted and lavishly shot (mostly in Morocco, with second unit work in British Columbia and Idaho), pic has not a single superfluous or derivative image, and features the kind of seamless, mesmerizing rhythm that only an accomplished pro like editor Thelma Schoonmaker can provide.
Avant-garde composer Glass has written a forceful, varied score, full of foreboding and mournfulness, that lends unexpected textures to the film, sustaining momentum even when the story threatens to stall. It’s a tribute to Glass’ glorious achievement that it’s impossible to evaluate “Kundun” without acknowledging the unforgettable spell of his music.