Kundun (1997)

D: Martin Scorsese
S: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin

The Last Emperor meets Taxi Driver and other clever critical comparisons are pretty pointless when faced with a film which, on one hand is so technically masterful as to induce awe in any serious film viewer, but on the other tends towards a hollowness and obviousness borne of too sycophantic an approach to its subject. Given the radical but loving challenge to Christianity produced by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese not ten years earlier in The Last Temptation of Christ, this limp homage to Tibetan Buddhism is a disappointment. Yet a film of this visual and aural power beauty is not easy to dismiss in the face of the somewhat unfair hammering it has received in the press. There is something very affecting about the story, and one tends to feel that underneath the pyrotechnics, some kind of spiritual message is being communicated. But the film's deliberate avoidance of political and social realities in favour of a defiantly subjective spiritual journey on the part of the infant, child and teenage Dalai Lama is uncomfortably naive and inexcusably escapist from a film maker who usually turns the screws of hyper realism with such pointed skill.

Accompanied by a mesmeric Philip Glass score, Kundun is often dizzying. Based upon the autobiography of the titular figure, the deposed leader of religious Tibet, the film is set in a world of half-understood rituals and spiritual visions which plunge us into a psychological milieu as thoroughly unsettling as that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but less familiar in detail. But just because the world is different does not mean our understanding of it can be less profound and immediate given the frames of reference with which to do so. But screenwriter Melissa Mathison has tended to let the Dalai Lama's world speak for itself, and though Scorsese has found in it many of his familiar obsessions about family, culture and violence, it never grips the soul quite as it should. There is a certain distance from the subject which amounts to a reverence absent from The Last Temptation of Christ. In that film, Schrader's Calvinist rigour and Nikos Kazantakis' tortured Catholicism produced a critique which ultimately restored faith in a very fundamental way. Mathison and the Dalai Lama have no ability to see beyond themselves, and simply demand faith and reverence because it is manifest that Tibetan spirituality is worthy of respect. This is too convenient a premise upon which to base a film, and too easily dismissed. It is the weakness which ultimately torpedoes it. There are things to admire here, but there is no moral and spiritual investigation either for the subject or the audience. It is too much a spectacle and not enough a cinematic exploration of philosophical ideas.

The film details the Dalai Lama's gradual awareness of the world around him, and Scorsese details it with flair and style. But that alone does not provide the film with a dramatic payoff which draws the audience into the drama and urges them to feel pity and terror for the character and his world. The situation may be distressing, and the political reality frightening to contemplate, but the sense of Buddhist detachment which motivates the Dalai Lama's writings and Mathison's adaptation does not fully engage its audience. If one wanted to be cruel, the film is more The Last Emperor meets E.T., or worse, Little Buddha meets E.T., only this time the endearing little creature which offers the world its heart light is not nearly as believable.

Scorsese does what he can given these parameters, and it is testament to him that the film works as well as it does. Though he is guilty of a certain amount of self-delusion in allowing these weaknesses to go unchallenged, he cannot be faulted for rendering them with a keen eye and a strong sense of the pace and rhythm of the subject. Several sequences are stunning, including the soon to be legend 'monk scene' where a crane shot and some computer composites give us a Gone With the Wind moment of the horror and destruction threatening the world. Dante Ferreti's production design is impressive, as are the costumes, and it seems as if Titanic could easily have done without at least four of its Oscars in favour of work here (Score, Cinematography, Costume, Set Decoration). But ultimately the hollow centre shows, and the film leaves you with an unhappy feeling that you've been let down even though you have been taken through a visual and aural wringer for over two hours without ever becoming bored with it (an observation which could not be made of The Last Emperor or Little Buddha).

Ultimately, Kundun is a well made and entertaining film which offers some food for thought (if not enough), and uses the medium to challenge the audience's expectations. It is worth seeing. If one can't help feeling that it's all one enormous shell game, the blame must be levelled firmly at Melissa Mathison and the Dalai Lama himself. If neither is a target you would dare challenge, then you may find this film more enjoyable than the average viewer. Otherwise, approach by all means with caution, but certainly not with reverence.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.