And here we have the second film of the year to tell the tale of the Dalai Lama. First came Seven Years in Tibet, an interesting, yet somehow uninformative view of the Dalai Lama’s live, from a decidedly Western outsider’s perspective. Kundun gets a bit more in depth, and tells the story from the inside, yet it could have used some of the energy of the earlier film to enliven the tale.
Martin Scorsese directs this tale of the life of the Dalai Lama (played at various ages by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Gyurme Tethong, and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong). The fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, the young Kundun is located at a young age on the Tibetan border.
Groomed to be the spiritual ruler of his country, the Dalai Lama faces an insurmountable challenge: the rise of Red China. The Chinese have long considered Tibet to be their province, and after the Communists take control, they invade.
Soon, the Dalai Lama is forced to choose between staying to lead his people in Tibet, or fleeing the country (which may be a better way to lead his people).
The film’s strongest suit is it’s beauty, both visually and aurally. The cinematography is simply stunning, and Philip Glass’ unique musical score only enhances the pleasure.
The all-Tibetan cast does a decent job…it’s hard to spot that many of them aren’t professional actors. Rather than using subtitles, the performers all speak English (though it does get a bit disconcerting when an occassional line or two is spoken in another language…why not translate it as well?)
The first problem with the film is with the character of the Dalai Lama. The film depicts him reverently, but as a result we are kept at a distance. The character is never humanized to the extent that we can empathize with him. Instead, he seemingly makes his decisions in a vacuum…we never quite know why he does the things he does…only that he does them.
And then there’s the pacing of Kundun. The film is painfully slow at times. It only runs a little over two hours, but it seems like three plus. The only conflict in the film comes with the arrival of China near the end, and that is not enough to propel the weight of the entire movie.
The insider’s point of view presents an interesting dilemma. While it does enable a more intimate portrait of the spiritual leader, it adds another obstacle for outsiders (such as the audience) from understanding the film. Many of the ceremonies and rituals in the film go unexplained, and it’s up to the audience to decide if they were important or merely decorative.
The end result might be beautiful, but it is distant and slow. It’s like looking at an exquisite flower…from a hundred yards away…for over two hours straight.