With the largest population of any country and consistent economic growth rates of around 10% a year, it was very clear in 1997 that China was going to become one of the world’s leading economies. As a result, many film studio sale predictions were looking to the Chinese market as a source of massive future growth. It was therefore clearly a risky strategy for any studio to distribute a film that could potentially alienate the Chinese government. Kundun certainly fell in to such a category of movies, as China found the film which depicted their invasion of Tibet offensive. However, unlike a number of other studios, allegedly including Universal, Disney decided to take the risk of distributing the film and the decision was widely applauded as a stand for free speech against the wishes of an autocratic government.
In a similar way to Disney, Kundun’s financers also took a large financial risk with the project, investing $28 million into a movie that never seemed to have the potential to be financially lucrative. The film flopped in terms of box office receipts, but was generally successful with critics, indicated by the four Academy Award nominations it received. And these nominations: Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Original Score, say much about the artistic merits of Kundun. It’s very pretty; but was the financial risk worthwhile just for an aesthetically pleasing film? I would suggest that both Scorsese and screenwriter Mathison had more than simple beauty in mind when creating the movie.
Mathison met with the Dalai Lama before writing the movie specifically to receive his blessing and he included various abstract scenes involving foresight and complex dream sequences in his final screenplay. It therefore, appears to be an effort to show the spirituality of the Dalai Lama throughout the movie. It would seem that Kundun is an attempt at a subjective look at the values and beliefs of the Buddhist religion through the eyes of one of its most enlightened figureheads.
Does Kundun succeed in portraying the mysticism and holiness necessary in any biography of the Dalai Lama? Well it represents a decent effort; Philip Glass’ score helps to add an extra dimension to scenes that may have otherwise been superficial and moments such as the shot where the Kundun is surrounded by hundreds of murdered Buddhist monks give a poignant sense of the man’s spiritual connection. Unfortunately I’m not the most spiritually enlightened individual, and I did struggle to fully immerse myself in the movie. In my opinion, this was the greatest problem: the entire film just becomes too aloof as the focus shifts further away from human relationships and more towards the spiritual understanding of the Dalai Lama. Furthermore, while the film is undeniably beautiful there isn’t a great deal of character development or story line and this serves to make the film seem exceptionally long; at two hours and 14 minutes it’s not even close to being the longest movie I have ever seen, but the film’s ending is drawn out through many shots of (admittedly beautiful) mandalas in amongst various visions from the Dalai Lama.
One only has to look at a comparable biographical epic to see what is missing from this film. Gandhi is an impressive 193 minutes and similarly portrays events of immense cultural significance, but Richard Attenborough’s masterpiece manages to keep the audiences’ attention through the entire movie due to wonderful performances and a plot that focuses as much on the eponymous hero’s relationship with other characters as it does on the important political events going on around him. Kundun struggles in this regard as it’s often unclear what exactly is going on in the political world around the Dalai Lama. While the Tibetan actors put in decent performances, I cannot help but feel they would have been more convincing if the dialogue were their own language. Such issues, combined with a limited storyline, make the film feel less like a plot-based movie and more like a poorly explained bibliographical documentary crossed with an arts film.
An outline of the plot helps to illustrate the point. The story starts with the Kundun as young child who, like all two year-old children, thinks that he is one of the most important people in the world. This child, however, is fortunate enough to be right, and soon some Lamas call at his house and realise that they could be in the presence of the Kundun after the child claims a necklace formerly belonging to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Reading a little bit more into this than I perhaps would, the priests organise a test whereby the two year-old proves that he is either a Derren Brown-style mentalist or the fourteenth reincarnation of the Kundun. The priests quickly decide the latter and bring the child to the Potala Palace where he would be raised as the Dalai Lama.
While the mother is tender towards her child and there are glances at a fairly amicable relationship with the father, the view of the Kundun’s family life is quite superficial and there is no in-depth look at his family relationships. The same can be said of his relationships with the priests and Tibetan leaders; there is a touching scene where the homesick child is comforted by the regent Renting, but this is one of very few, and while many friendships are hinted at there is little examination of their nature or ambit. The film’s early depictions of the political processes are similarly fleeting as these are viewed through the eyes of the child and are therefore often confusing. And despite the fact that as the Kundun grows he demands to know more about the political realities of Tibet’s relationship with China, the explanations remain fairly superficial: even when China invades, the Tibetan resistance is hinted at but never shown in much detail.
In late adolescence the Dalai Lama meets with Mao Zedong and things initially appear positive, but it quickly becomes evident that the Dalai Lama is no longer safe in Tibet under Chinese control. As a result, the Kundun is persuaded to leave Tibet and the end of the movie then portrays his difficult journey to India, although because of the numerous visions it’s difficult to tell exactly what is happening. This is a recurring theme throughout the film: things are often confusing to those unfamiliar with the Buddhist faith. There are various ceremonies which seem attractive and mystical enough, but a viewer without any prior knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist culture would not know what is occurring as the movie provides no explanation of their purpose. Therefore, possibly the best conclusion to draw is that those who are keen admirers of both the values and beliefs of Buddhism may more fully appreciate this film. The rest of us may have to simply enjoy the cinematography at face value.
For a film that was such a financial risk this is a very narrow audience. Make no mistake, I don’t consider Kundun to be a bad movie, but I do think it lacks the necessary ingredients for a great movie and it won’t be every Scorsese fan’s cup of tea: a biography of the Dalai Lama is obviously very different to his most famous films’ focus on masculinity, crime and violence. He should therefore be applauded for experimenting in a different type of film. But when you do masculinity, crime and violence as well as Scorsese, why bother with a different genre? And on that note I think I’ll watch Goodfellas.