Kundun: Scorsese Spiritual Tale

Totally disregarding commercial considerations, Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s haunting meditation on the early life Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, is one from the heart, a majestic spectacle of images and sounds, bogged down by a routine screenplay that fails to provide a fresh perspective or new insight on Tibet’s non-violent culture.

Immensely aided by Philip Glass’s emtionally powerful score, Scorsese’s filmmaking achieves brilliance, utilizing an innovative style that deviates substantially from mainstream narrative cinema in general and the Hollywood biopic genre in particular. The combination of a serious, highly demanding subject matter, a cast that’s mostly composed of Tibetan nonprofessional actors, and the lack of a particularly involving dramatic structure should spell box-office disappointment for a singular film that’s likely to divide both critics and audiences.

The controversy surrounding the production of Kundun, which reportedly involved the intervention of high government American and Chinese officials, will not help Kundun, not even in the way that it made Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) a cause celebre when it was attacked by fundamentalist. Though well-intentioned and often disturbing, Kundun somehow doesn’t convey the deep passion that Scorsese must have felt for the cause when he decided to make the movie against considerable odds.

In the end credits the “contribution and cooperation” of Dalai Lama are acknowledged, though it’s hard to know precisely what that contribution was. It’s not that Kundun offers an “official” version of the charismatic leader’s life; it’s just that the film doesn’t elucidate Tibet’s unique pacifist culture beyond what most informed viewers already know. That said, latest effort represents the closest Scorsese has come to making an almost “silent” film, one whose strongest sequences work their enchantment sans dialogue or words.

Following a straightforward chronological order, story begins in 1933 with the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and the search for a successor. It’s told from the subjective point-of-view of a child (aged 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, giggling innocently as he’s asked to identify objects placed on his table. To the boy, these games are just a diversion, but to the monks who observe him, it’s the beginning of a scared process of divination, one that results in labeling the boy the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. As a boy, Dalai Lama demonstrates acute alertness and leadership qualities that are further developed by the country’s finest team of educators.

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 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 the Chinese aggressive campaign to convince the world that Tibet belongs to them. Still a youngster, he’s forced to deal with a political strife and spiritual adversity of the highest order.

Pic’s second part begins in 1949, when General Mao Zedong ruthlessly enforces communist ideology over his country and tight military control over Tibet, despite persistent protests from Dalai Lama to spare Tibet and let it maintain its long-cherished autonomy. At first, the Tibetan leader rejects Mao’s conditions and when China invades Tibet, he is willing to fight with his small army. Last section depicts the Chinese massacre of innocent Tibetans, the annihilation of a whole “society of spirit,” and finally Dalai Lama’s successful journey into exile, which continues at present.

It’s indicative of the scrip’s shortcomings that the film’s weakest sequences are those depicting the historically fateful meetings between Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao. Heavily made-up and sporting a distracting accent, Mao talks to Dalai Lama in broad slogans and mundane dialogue, delivered by Robert Lin with such mannered artifice that his Mao comes across as a monstrous caricature, borderline camp.

Maintaining a remarkably coherent P.O.V. throughout the film, Scorsese keeps the camera close to the ground. In a series of masterly shots, he depicts the comfort with which the young boy observes his parents’ feet moving across the house in their worn Tibetan 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.

Kundun (which signifies “ocean of wisdom”) represents an exception in Scorsese’s extraordinary oeuvre in several respects. With the notable exception of The Last Temptation, most of Scorsese’s narratives have centers on small, all-male groups of alienated and paranoid individuals who’re victims of their unbridled instincts and desperate need to be recognized. 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 Scorsese’s pther screen persona, Kundun’s characters are articulate and restrained, their behavior guided by an acute sense of ethics and morality.

At the same time, one doesn’t have to be an auteurist to realize that, strange as it may sound, Kundun expresses some of Scorsese’ perennial concerns, such as the disappearance of “small” distinctive subcultures, when they are engulfed and then destroyed by larger political or economic forces, be they the disappearance of a graceful lifestyle in The Age of Innocence or the decline of petty mobsters before the corporations took over in Casino’s Vegas. Of course, the strife between Tibet and China also serves as a metaphor for the conflict between Scorsese’s wish to make personal, expressive works and Hollywood as an industry dominated by commercial imperatives calling for big, formulaic, impersonal movies.

Placed in the context of American political cinema, Kundun deviates from Oliver Stone’s didactically preachy movies as well as the middle-brow sensibility and stately, postcard-like looking Gandhi. Scorsese deserves credit for making a relevant film that is neither a message nor 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, sensorially stunning without being illuminating.

Still, whatever else is wrong with the shallow narrative and commonplace dialogue is more than made up by Scorsese’s notable kinetic energy, fully evident here in the vitality and tension that prevail in Deakins’ spectacular visuals. Sumptuously mounted and lavishly shot (mostly in Morocco, with second unit work in British Colombia and Idaho), there’s not a single superfluous or derivative image. The whole movie is subjected to the kind of seamless and mesmerizing rhythm that only an accomplished pro like Thelma Schoonmaker can bring.

Avant-garde composer Philip Glass has written an emotionally forceful and 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’s glorious achievement that it’s impossible to evaluate Kundun as a movie without acknowledging the unforgettable spell of his music.