By KEVIN D. GULLEDGE
The sons of Genghis Khan, the “Supreme Conqueror,” were feared warriors from Mongolia who named the Dalai Lama, an advocate of non-violence, “Ocean of Wisdom.” The irony of these opposing forces, violence and non-violence, is thoroughly explored by Martin Scorsese in his newest film, “Kundun.”
“Kundun,” which means “The Presence,” is an account of the life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as “Kundun” out of respect for the reincarnate of the Buddha of Compassion. The film follows the auspicious Dalai Lama from the time he was discovered by a priest on the borders of China, through his training as a religious leader, to his enthronement as a Tibetan political power, and finally to his eventual flight into India in exile in 1959.
The script is masterfully written by Melissa Mathison, the wife of Harrison Ford. Her research is quite apparent and the screenplay was created with the cooperation and contribution of the Dalai Lama himself. This film was five years in the making and portrays the essence of the Tibetan culture and values.
“Kundun is more like a painting than a film, told in brush strokes that are at times delicate and others violent,” said Aguirre, an Internet film critic, in his review. The allusion is accurate as color plays a crucial part in the film’s visual appeal. Red and gold, royal colors, are brought out against the harsh barren background of dusty Tibet. They suggest the spiritual dignity of the Dalai Lama.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels very spontaneous as its dizzying angles are spliced with the tranquil surroundings of the country. The scenery is fabulous, although not Tibetan in origin. The crew was banned from shooting in China so footage ranged from Morocco to Idaho.
“Kundun’s” cast is entirely comprised of non-professional actors. This fact alone lends realism to the film’s content. The amateur cast is not detected throughout the performance, as the parts are played with precision. Most of the actors are familiar with the lives of their off-screen counterparts, through relation or experience, lending credibility to the film.
The costumes, music and ritualistic dancing all contribute to the viewer’s assimilation. Each of these elements support the contrasting theme of violence versus non-violence. Scorsese weaves the cultural strands of Tibet into this historical work.
“I’m impressed by a culture … they’re at the top of the world, the roof of the world, they don’t go out, they go in, and that’s something that in the West I think we need more of, more centering in ourselves, in our lives,” Scorsese said in a Frontline interview.
The musical score, although accurate in tradition, tends to distract rather than submerge the viewer at times. The overuse of deep bellowing horns, like the ones on the Ricola commercial, is disturbing. The other traditional pieces do add to the foreign flavor of the film. The soundtrack won’t be on the top ten list.
The film is a unique look into the life of a Dalai Lama, but the characters are not developed. They lack depth and dimensionality. It is hard to see the Dalai Lama as anything less than a spiritual puppet. He is much more than the film gives him credit for.
“Seven Years in Tibet,” with Brad Pitt, is a film about the same Dalai Lama from the perspective of an ex-Nazi, mountain climber Heinrich Harrer. This portrayal gives us greater insight into the personality of the Dalai Lama. Taken together, they paint a complete picture of the Tibetan leader, but alone, “Kundun” leaves a more documentary taste in your mouth.
The underlying message is clear in the end. “I want people to at least come out and understand that something beautiful, if not in their political structure, than in their art, and their philosophy, and in their culture — something beautiful has been wiped away,” Scorsese said in his Frontline interview.
“The saddest thing is we will bow to change,” the Dalai Lama says at the end of the picture. “Non-violence takes a long time.”
“Do we have the time Holiness?” his priest asked.
From his exiled home in India, the fourteenth Dalai Lama is still waiting for an answer.