Review No. 493
The Dalai Lama is important, but this movie believes otherwise.
DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE. PRODUCED BY BARBARA DE FINA. WRITTEN BY MELISSA MATHISON. DALAI LAMA PORTRAYED BY TENZIN THUTHOB TSARONG (ADULT), GYURME TETHONG (AGE 12), TULKU JAMYANG KUNGA TENZIN (AGE 5), AND TENZIN YESHI PAICHANG (AGE 2). ALSO STARRING TENCHO GYALPO, TENZIN TOPJAR, TSEWANG MIGYUR KHANGSAR, TENZIN LODOE, TSERING LHAMO, GESHI YESHI GYATSO, LOBSANG GYATSO, SONAM PHUNTSOK, GYATSO LUKHANG, LOBSANG SAMTEN, TSEWANG JIGME TSARONG, TENZIN TRINLEY, ROBERT LIN, JURME WANGDA, AND JILL HSIA. DISTRIBUTED BY BUENA VISTA PICTURES ON DECEMBER 25, 1997. PRODUCED IN ENGLISH BY THE UNITED STATES. RUNS 2 HOURS, 14 MINUTES. RATED PG-13 BY THE MPAA, FOR VIOLENT IMAGES.
KUNDUN WAS WATCHED ON JUNE 5, 2013.
“Sleep is the best meditation.” –Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
Martin Scorsese can shock you with a good movie. His oeuvre is composed mainly of films you expect to be outstanding, and they turn out even better. He can shock you even more with something as simple as a good scene. The climactic moments of Goodfellas, for example. His biggest shocks, though, are when he makes a movie that’s less-than-tolerable. It rarely happens, but when does it happen, the lack of effort leaves you speechless with disappointment. He first did this in 1972 with Boxcar Bertha. Granted, that wasn’t exactly his film. It was a crime flick that he directed, but it had B-movie trash producer Roger Corman written all over it.
A movie like Kundun is especially disappointing because it’s something Scorsese typically does better than any director. Scorsese is one of very few who uses his creative license wisely when he goes to work on a biopic. He makes the characters his own by, first, telling about what they accomplished and, more importantly, making us really care about them. We just don’t care about a man who’s made to seem perfect. That’s why we have the psychotic boxer Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), not the champion boxer Jake LaMotta; and why we have the Howard Hughes who became an entrepreneur because he was a control freak (The Aviator), not the Howard Hughes who was just an entrepreneur.
If directing is defined as standing somewhere among the crew members during production, while he decides what to have for dinner, then Scorsese did indeed direct Kundun. The movie has the entire “flawed character” motif down. Written by Melissa Mathison and doctored by the film’s subject himself, the screenplay offers the Fourteenth Dalai Lama as a character we should care about. But we don’t. The lack of care is obvious in the first ten minutes of the film. It’s the sort of sequence you can tell was in the screenplay, but as Scorsese (for whatever reason) doesn’t seem to care about the character, he calls the shots based on an interpretation that we shouldn’t care either.
The scene features a servant of the recently-deceased Thirteenth Dalai Lama finding two-year-old Tenzin Gyatso in his home and, after meeting him, proclaiming that he must become the Fourteenth Dalai Lama when he comes of age; he visits seven years later to consult Gyatso once more. The reason this scene isn’t moving is because it’s not taken solemnly. The ultimate presentation of these ten minutes is basically identical, but emotionally, it’s somewhere between bizarrely unrealistic and unintentionally funny. We have what appears to be a strange, desperate man, walking into a Tibetan household; noticing a child of nine and his obsession with having power, as is natural for an arrogant nine-year-old; and telling him that he will be whisked away so that in six years, he can rule an entire nation. It’s like watching a random passerby walk into an orphanage and ask Oliver Twist if he wants to become the Prime Minister of England. He probably does, but at his innocent, uninformed age, what does he know about the responsibilities?
Kundun isn’t a bad movie, but it would take significant generosity to call it a good one. Editing, music, and cinematography make the historical account look like the work of David Lean. Perhaps Lean would have gotten his hands on it first, if only he hadn’t passed away six years prior; the essential difference between Kundun and The Bridge on the River Kwai is that the latter has a present meaning. Again, the writing clearly did offer some emotion, but only a crumb of it managed its way to the screen. We learn how arrogance led servants to patronize the 14th Dalai Lama much more than honor him. Even here, you kind of question whether or not he deserved to be patronized. We learn some of his responsibilities a bit later in the film, as far as leading a nation is concerned. I wish I could tell you what some of these duties were, but my mind–like Scorsese’s–was much more concerned with what to have for dinner.
NOTE: The film does not feature a single A-list actor, not even from around the region. The cast here does have interesting stories, though. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who portrayed the 14th adult Dalai Lama, is the grandson of the 14th himself. Lobsang Samten, who portrayed the master of the kitchen, is–according to Wikipedia–”an American Tibetan scholar, sand mandala artist, former Buddhist monk, and Spiritual Director of the Tibeta Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.” The stories go on for about 90% of the cast. All very interesting, but just a year’s worth of acting lessons could have helped, too.