Kundun is the black sheep in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, the one film that almost doesn’t seem like his at first glance. It is a film about the life of one man, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and is a pastiche of events in his life that each mean a great deal to him, and to his Tibetan people.
Early on, we see the young boy picked out as the next incarnation and brought to Lhasa for his proper upbringing. It’s a bit comical watching all the holy men treat this young boy as if he were the same old man that had died a few years prior. Only when you think of it from the perspective of these men that you realize that that is exactly how it is to them; a foreign concept to us Westerners but one that holds true enough for the culture. A few mentions early on are made of the relationship between Tibet and China, and this does indeed come to play in the foreground later on.
Scorsese holds such reverence for his material and shows it such delicate care in his presentation that he sometimes forgets to imbue the characters with the life and deeper substance that will get us to care for them as characters. It seems Scorsese is more interested in weaving the tapestry of the man’s life as his fabric rather than making this a pure character study. The actors all do excellent jobs, and there is a real weight behind the multiple young actors who portray the Dalai Lama. The cinematography (by my favorite, Roger Deakins) is very illuminating, with lots of vivid colors and interesting camera shots. Scorsese gets quite inventive with the camera here, having fun rolling it and moving it around and placing it in various ways that keep our interest. The music seems to be some bizarre hybrid of Eastern and Western instruments strummed under an orchestration made for Western audiences. It seems a bit weird at times, but understandable.
Overall, I was quite pleased I had taken the time to view this film. As a Buddhist, it held a lot of different meanings for me. I was able to view the film under Buddhist pretenses and with the eye of a Buddhist influenced by the Dalai Lama’s teachings, and I think I got a little more out of it than I otherwise would have. This is a hard film to recommend, because I don’t know what an average person would really gain from seeing this film, aside from a better understanding of the man himself. However, that is really the best thing to be gained from this film, and I’m sure was the intent behind it. The best advice I can give is this: If this is a journey you wish to make, then do so, and you will be enlivened by it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10