Kundun (1997)

Kundun (1997)

1997 134 Minutes

Drama | History

The Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as 'Kundun', which means 'The Presence'. He was forced to escape from his native home, Tibet, when communist China invaded and enforced an oppressive regime upo...

Overall Rating

4 / 10
Verdict: So-So

User Review

  • WHAT I LIKED: Most of Melissa Mathison's exposition-laden script for 'Kundun,' simply serves to go through the motions of its story about the discovery and early life of the 14th - and current - Dalai Lama in early twentieth-century Tibet, and the subsequent Buddhist persecution by China.

    That's certainly interesting to some extent, but the only genuinely engaging thing within it is the central depiction of what happens to a character when literally everyone in their life treats them unquestionably as God's gift and gives them all the power they could possibly imagine. According to this script, what happens is that on the one hand they become bossy and spoilt, and on the other hand they struggle a couple of times with the immense responsibility that their role holds until they gain some humility. We don't get to delve into that stuff any more, but the performances (from the various young actors who bring him to life during different years) certainly do a good job on the surface.

    Beyond that though, the best thing about the film is the atmospheric way that Martin Scorsese chooses to bring everything to life. Philip Glass' music is as spectacular as it is intrusive, the world-building is wonderfully-detailed (especially considering much of it was filmed in studios), and Roger Deakin's dream-like cinematography is magical to say the least.

    WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The trouble is, there's really very little insight into the character's conflict, and as a result, there's no real thematic explorations possible either. In Scorsese's comparable (though agreeably flawed) 'Passion of the Christ,' Jesus struggles with a crisis of conscience, and the film interestingly becomes about him battling with that and earning his feeling of right towards the divinity imposed upon him. In this, after a young Dalai Lama's picks out a few sacred objects as the camera zooms and the music swells, noone in the film - least of all himself - questions his holiness.

    As a result, he never really feels like a real human that we can connect with or understand, and there's consequently no interesting dissection of the spiritual legends or concepts constantly discussed in the script either. I suspect if I wasn't a stone-cold atheist I might have found that stuff more entrancing, but frankly to me it all came across as wildly absurd and, ultimately, desperately uninvolving.

    VERDICT: A rare missfire from Scorsese that brings the Dalai Lama's story to life without ever really bringing him to life as a man, 'Kundun,' has some surface-level qualities, but it's ultimately unprovoking and uninvolving.